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Are women in positions of power more vulnerable to harassment?

A recent study released by the Swedish Institute for Social Research at Stockholm University shows that female supervisors face the highest rates of sexual harassment. 

Researchers evaluated data taken from female employees across the United States, Sweden and Japan. Overall, female supervisors were 30 to 100 percent more likely to be sexually harassed at work than female employees who were further down in the company hierarchy.

Subjective vs list-based questioning

Researchers asked women about their experiences with harassment in two ways:

  1. Subjective: women were directly asked whether they had been sexually harassed within the last year
  2. Question-based: women were shown a list of 23 harassment behaviors and asked whether they had experienced any of them within the past year

Results from all countries showed dramatically fewer reports of sexual harassment from the subjective inquiries than the question-based. Women tended to overlook less frequent and less severe forms of workplace harassment until it was spelled out for them.

American supervisors reported a 50 percent higher rate of harassment than women in non-supervisor roles from the list-based questions. American supervisors reported 100 percent more harassment under the subjective questioning model.

Understanding the trend

Most people assume that women with the least amount of power would suffer the highest rates of harassment. However, the numbers show the opposite trend.

Researchers hypothesize that female supervisors are exposed to greater numbers of people within the organization – they interact with management above them and their direct reports. Interacting with a greater cross-section of colleagues increases their chances of harassment. 

This trend eventually tapers off for women at the very top of the company. Once workers secure top leadership positions, they tend to work closely with a more narrowly defined set of people than middle level managers do.

What can we take away from this study?

We must be aware that all employees are at-risk of harassment, not just those at the bottom of the power structure. It’s also important to note the pattern of constant underreporting of sexual misconduct. Harassment has become so ingrained in many workplace environments that women fail to recognize inappropriate behaviors until they are directly asked whether they have suffered from x, y or z.

Companies have a lot more work ahead of them to foster healthy workplace environments where all employees are respected and valued. Hopefully bringing greater awareness to this problem will spark gears of change over the upcoming years.

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