Why Sexual Harassment Persists and What Organizations Can Do to Stop It
The sheer volume of sexual harassment allegations against public figures reveals just how entrenched such abuses of power are. They’ve forced us to acknowledge that many men in leadership roles marginalize and intimidate colleagues (usually, but not always, women) of lower status both verbally and physically. Sexual harassment happens everywhere: in the most lucrative industries and in minimum-wage jobs, in glamorous fields as well as the most ordinary.
Of course, none of this is new. The insidious ways harassment hurts not only the targets of harassment, but the places they work, have long been documented. Multiple studies have found that experiencing harassment drives women to leave their jobs, taking their ideas, relationships, and potential out the door with them and creating the costly need to hire and train new employees to fill the roles vacated. Their exit also erases any path to leadership they may have been on. And with fewer women in senior management, bias and discrimination, including harassment, are less likely to be acknowledged and addressed. There is also evidence that harassment can hurt the cohesion and functioning of teams, with negative financial consequences for productivity and employee turnover. Companies stand to lose capital—human and more—if they don’t work to eliminate sexualized bullying. Sexual harassment is not a women’s problem but a threat to companies’ health. And men most often have the power to determine if an organization will prevent and treat it—or allow it to spread.
What’s Really Going On
To eliminate sexual harassment, we must first understand that it is a means of enforcing and regulating social status, not a product of mismanaged sexual desire. Scholars have found in psychology labs as well as in large datasets that men sexualize female coworkers as a way to keep them “in their place,” especially when they feel that women are outperforming them in traditionally masculine domains. And researchers have found that women who deviate from gender norms by working in male-dominated industries, exhibiting traditionally masculine personality characteristics, or simply being in supervisory roles, are especially likely to experience harassment.
Why do some organizations allow sexual harassment to flourish? One reason can be found in what researchers have termed “masculinity contests,” or sets of norms promoting a show-no-weakness mentality that defines success as the display of power and control. If a team, division, or company operates with this mindset, harassing behavior can be an effective way for employees to marginalize and dominate others in order to shore up their own clout. In such contexts, sexual harassment may, in fact, be one of many tactics deployed to assert and maintain authority. As some of the latestallegations of harassment have revealed, sexualized language or contact can be part of a larger pattern of bullying and intimidation. The best sensitivity trainings will not make a real dent in a workplace where exaggerated displays of stereotypical masculinity are rewarded.
More to the point, high performance does not go hand-in-hand with interpersonal dysfunction. In fact, research has shown that people whose workplaces operate as masculinity contests report high rates of burnout—hardly a recipe for results. And people who buy in to the 24/7, win-at-all costs mindset are actually worse mentors than their peers who take a more balanced approach to their jobs. Again, it’s hard to see how encouraging “brilliant jerks” yields organizational health over the long term.
The Leader’s Role
The consequences of tolerating such behavior are serious, so it would be wise for leaders to do more than review and update harassment policies and trainings (though they should do that, too). To take truly preventive measures, leaders must reflect on whether their company culture thwarts harassers or enables them.
Minimizing or excusing sexual bullying by star employees affects the targets of their harassment even more than the harassment itself, research has found, and it sends a clear message about priorities. When sexual harassment isn’t taken seriously by managers and others in positions of authority with the standing to discipline the offender, employees know that speaking out is likely to carry more risk than reward. The result is a workplace where people know they can get away with mistreating their coworkers. This demoralizes not only victims, but witnesses and bystanders (including men), according to some studies.
Leaders should make clear that there is no organizational cover for harassment by implementing clear and credible reporting structures, ensuring that investigations of harassment claims are thorough, and fitting the punishment to the offense, rather than the status of the offender.
Sexual harassment is not a women’s issue but a leadership one. Women do not need to be “protected” from the misbehavior of men in their workplaces. They need their managers to foster cultures in which sexual bullying is treated as the threat to the organization it is.