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Do Women in Leadership Positions Experience More Sexual Harassment?

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One might think that women who hold supervisory and leadership roles at work would face less sexual harassment. Given their positions of power, one might think that an executive who is also a female would not experience a hostile work environment more than an average female employee. However, this is not the case, according to a study conducted by the Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI) at Stockholm University.

Researchers at the SOFI looked at working conditions and data from Sweden, the United States, and Japan. The SOFI researchers, along with American and Japanese researchers, used surveys given to women at all levels of employment in business organizations. Not only were female supervisors and executives requested to fill out the surveys, but lower-level, non-supervisory female employees completed the surveys as well. The surveys asked women about how prevalent sexual harassment is within the hierarchy of their business organizations.

The data demonstrated that women in supervisory positions or women in executive positions experienced between 30 and 100 percent more sexual harassment than other women employees. Additionally, the surveys were administered in varied types of businesses and in three different countries. It is important that the surveys were given in three countries that have very different gender norms and differing levels of gender equality within their business environments.

The greatest propensity for sexual harassment appeared to be against female employees who held supervisory positions at lower levels as compared to higher levels of supervisor positions and/or executives. However, even at the highest level of supervisory roles, there was significantly more sexual harassment than female employees in non-leadership positions. Also, the total level of harassment was greatest when a female’s supervisor’s subordinates were mostly men.

Sexual Experiences Questionnaire

The survey used a document called the Sexual Experiences Questionnaire. The questionnaire was developed for studies within the United States military, and consisted of a list of behaviors that the survey participants had to characterize as sexual harassing behaviors or not. This means that some participants might consider certain behaviors as sexual harassment, but other participants might consider the same activity as not being considered sexual harassment. The study also consisted of asking participants detailed questions about any sexual harassment events they experienced individually over 12 months. The responses were subjective but still gave the survey teams data about the number of times women are subjected to behaviors that they believe to be sexual harassment.

The overall survey consisted of over one hundred questions and was completed anonymously by the participants. Other areas of the survey consisted of the following:

  • Questions about the perpetrators of the sexual harassing behavior.
  • How the survey participants reacted to the harassing behavior.
  • What social and/or professional consequences occurred after the harassment event.

The Swedish survey data was from 23,994 female employees and compiled over every other year, beginning in 1999 and ending in the year 2007. The United States and Japanese data was compiled in 2019 and consisted of 1,573 U.S. female employees and 1,573 Japanese female employees. Out of the U.S. female employees, 62 percent held supervisory positions, where 17 percent of the Japanese female employees were in supervisory roles.

What is the Paradox of Power Hypothesis?

The hypothesis behind the study has been referred to as the paradox of power. In the study, women were given more power in the workplace but were unable to use that power to stop sexual harassment. In this hypothesis, the extra gained power in supervisory positions actually put the women at greater risk of harassment.

What the Survey Considers Sexual Harassment

The survey defined sexual harassment as unwelcome physical actions or offensive remarks on subject matters that are commonly associated with sex. The survey participants were then asked if they experienced any of these actions over the past 12 months from supervisors or employees under them or from other individuals, such as customers. The survey participants were provided with sample examples of harassment, including activity of sexual hostility as well as unwanted sexual attention.

The questions that specifically related to sexual harassment were mixed within the other types of work-related questions so that the survey participants would not think that the overall purpose of the survey was to track sexual harassment at work. A third question on sexual harassment asked whether they experienced degrading and ridiculing statements or were ignored because of their gender and occupation.

What the study clearly demonstrates is the paradox of power hypothesis, where women in a position of power can and do experience sexual harassment and hostile working conditions more than females in non-supervisory roles. The study authors promoted several reasons why this phenomenon might exist:

  • Jealousy by men, particularly in male dominated businesses or industries. Males who have female supervisors might have jealous feelings toward the women who have power over them. The jealous feelings are manifested in sexual harassment behaviors, which is a way for men to demonstrate at least some type of dominance over their female supervisors who have actual power over them.
  • A way to equalize power. Similar to jealousy, some male subordinates will engage in harassing behavior toward their female supervisors to equalize the power disparity between the two individuals. This is seen in male dominated industries, such as technology, construction, and finance.
  • Increased number of harassers. Women who hold supervisory positions can face sexual harassment from male subordinates and male supervisors who hold power over them.
  • Female supervisors could be better educated on sexual harassment. It could be that some female supervisors have a better ability to spot sexual harassment behaviors and more likely to label certain behavior as harassment because they are more educated about what makes a work environment hostile. This could account for the survey participants in supervising roles that labeled more behaviors as harassment than the less educated female employees.

What Should I Do if I am Facing Workplace Sexual Harassment?

As the study demonstrates, the sexual harassment of women in the workplace is a widespread problem, no matter the industry or position of power. If one is facing sexual harassment, a lawyer can help by protecting their client’s rights and answering their questions in an honest and compassionate way. Whether they were wrongfully terminated, denied a promotion, experienced sexual harassment, or worked in a hostile work environment, a lawyer can evaluate the case and determine the best course of action.

There are both state and federal laws that protect workers from harassment and discrimination, such as the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination (NJLAD). A worker may not fully understand their rights or know what to do after they encounter sexual harassment. For these reasons, it is imperative to speak to a lawyer right away.

Cherry Hill Employment Lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. Help Clients Who Have Experienced Sexual Harassment at Work

Women in leadership positions frequently experience sexual harassment, contrary to common belief. If any employee needs help with their sexual harassment case, a good first step is to speak to a lawyer. The Cherry Hill employment lawyers at Sidney L. Gold & Associates, P.C. defend the rights of sexually harassed workers, and we can help you pursue justice. Call us at 215-569-1999 or contact us online for a free consultation. Located in Pennsauken, New Jersey, we serve clients throughout South Jersey, including Cherry Hill, Haddonfield, Marlton, Moorestown, and Mount Laurel.

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