The Link Between Power And Sexual Harassment In The Workplace

The #MeToo Movement has highlighted how pervasive sexual harassment is in society. In recent months, there have been numerous stories in the media of men in powerful positions who have been exposed for their harassment of women, often over a long period of time. The workplace is a microcosm of society but what part does power dynamics play in creating a culture where sexual harassment is tolerated?

The impact of power on an individual has a profound effect from a psychological viewpoint, remarks Professor Ben Voyer, professor of creativity marketing at ESCP Europe.

The literature is psychology is rather extensive and suggests that power has consequences in terms of three important aspects of our psychological functioning: how we process information; how we experience emotions and as a consequence how we behave. Powerful individuals are more capable of concentrating on important information and get less distracted by peripheral information.”

Power also affects our capacity to take the perspective of others and empathize, remarks Voyer.

This is something crucial in understanding sexual harassment as perpetrators may be less capable of understanding the emotions of their victims. Power-holders exert different types of behaviors. Powerful individuals are more likely to be action-focused and make first moves.”

Research also shows that power can act as a trigger for men and women who are high in tendency to sexually harass, adds Voyer. “This means that power is not a definite trigger for every man but will definitely play a role for those with a predisposition.”

The larger issue of sexual harassment is a clear disparity of power at the top of an organization, argues Allyson Zimmerman, executive director for Catalyst Europe. “When you see that there is a disparity of power in an organization, you see sexual harassment increase and when you see power shared across gender, you see harassment decreasing.”

There is also the danger of the “superstar” harasser. Employers may find themselves in a position where the harasser is a workplace “superstar.” By superstar, think of the high-earning trader at an investment bank or the law firm partner who brings in lucrative clients. A select task force on the study of harassment in the workplace commissioned by the US Employment Equal Opportunities Commission outlined how psychologists have detailed how power can make an individual feel uninhibited and thus more likely to engage in inappropriate behaviors. In short, “superstar” status can be a breeding ground for harassment.

Zimmerman is keen to point out that having women in leadership positions alone doesn’t block bad behavior in the workplace. “But it does reflect an environment that women can be viewed as colleagues, not prey. This is about looking beyond how women are being viewed not only in corporations but in society as a whole.”

Zimmerman believes there is a danger in the aftermath of the #MeToo Movement of a “chilling” effect where senior men might be afraid to sponsor or mentor women in organizations.

It’s anecdotal but it’s being discussed within companies and we tell organizations to challenge this. While men hold a lot of the power in organizations, one of the ways that women advance is women having access to power and having sponsors to give them mission-critical roles. The ‘chilling effect’ is when men are reluctant to sponsor or mentor female talent as they are afraid of being inappropriate. As long as men are holding the power, they must share it and look beyond the usual suspects for passing on that power.”

Zimmerman believes that organizations need to take four-pronged approach to tackling this issue.

Prepare:

-Review policies, including all employees and develop an impartial investigatory process
Prevent:

Cultivate a zero tolerance policy and be crystal clear about your policies
Don’t assume everyone knows what you mean by harassment (spell it out)
Tell it like it is, quickly address sexist jokes or behaviors
Get to even. Work towards gender parity at all levels so power is shared across gender

Respond:

Take all accusations seriously. Never treat an accuser with scorn or isolate them
Protect those accusing from retaliation

Act promptly

Transform:

Promote a culture of inclusion, make it safe and build a culture of respect

Karen Higginbottom |Forbes

I’m a freelance journalist who writes about HR (human remains as I like to call it) and employment topics for Thomson Reuters GRC and supplements for The Times. I began my career as a reporter for HR trade journals in the U.K. before branching out in 2004 as a freelancer for U.K. Nationals such as the Guardian and Independent. Over the past 13 years, I’ve written on diverse subjects ranging from the dearth of women on the board to the more frivolous but fun subject of whether office romance hinders productivity. I love exploring quirky and unusual trends in the workplace but my writing has touched on more serious subjects such as leadership development, recruitment, reward and performance management. In my spare time, I’ve also worked as a communications consultant for NGOs