New Study Sheds Light on Why Men Initiate Sexual Advances in the Workplace
The workplace is, almost uniformly, an unequal space rife with power dynamics. Gender remains one axis of power that people grapple with — and a new study shows that men tend to initiate sexual advances toward senior women to boost their own perception of power. While sexual advances at work — many of them unwanted — are a known fact, the exact sociological function at play remains understudied.
“Together, these findings illustrate the central role of the self-concept in explaining why and when gender differences emerge in patterns of SSB [social sexual behavior],” the paper, published in Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, noted. This puts many reported instances of harassment into context, and it also reveals a darker side to how women are seen in the workplace: as conquests that enhance the status of anyone who has, or attempts to gain, sexual access to them.
There’s a key finding in the research that upends how we’ve tended to understand sexual advances so far. It’s not just men who occupy positions of power and leverage the said power in this way; men in subordinate positions also seek to gain power by making advances toward women who occupy senior roles, so as to be perceived as powerful by others in the workplace. There’s a word for this when it crosses over into harassment: contrapower harassment. It not only indicts the men who do this, but also a culture that tends to accord the desired perception as a reward for behavior that overwhelmingly targets women. In other words: it’s not just an abuse of power, it’s also the pursuit of power that informs certain behaviors at work.
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“… we found that it’s more often men who are insecure about their role at work who use unwanted social sexual behavior to look more masculine and powerful, even when they know it’s offensive to women,” said lead author Laura Kray, a psychologist from the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley.
The study also shows how women are seen as objects of desire, rather than active participants. The study discusses social sexual behavior (SSB) as any kind of sexual advance — but with the important caveat that it can often cross over into harassment. While not all advances are unwanted, then, the idea is that many of them can be, and are driven by an external motivation for status rather than having anything to do with the woman herself. “… it’s a desire for more power — not holding power — that corrupts,” says co-authorJessica A. Kennedy, an associate professor of management from Vanderbilt University.
Feminist scholarship has looked at sexual harassment in the workplace as a tool designed to deter women from it. In the face of increasingly higher rates of women’s entry into formal, paid labor, men often sought to “remind” women of their place by making lewd remarks or unwanted contact: all meant to reinforce the workplace as a public, masculine space in which women don’t belong.
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While much of the attention — including in the wake of #MeToo — has focused on how men in positions of power behave, the study’s authors suggest it’s important to move past that frame of analysis to look at sexual behavior more broadly. In male-dominated workplaces, moreover, it’s women in positions of power who may actually be more frequent targets of harassment. “Sexual harassment can serve as an equalizer against women in power, motivated more by control and domination than by sexual desire,” notes one analysis.
The present study sought to look into the self-perception of men who describe themselves as “flirts” — against the oft-cited claim that these men aren’t aware that their actions can be perceived as harassment. They used a metric called “social sexual identity” — which encapsulates how a person perceives their own sex appeal. This helps understand how people assess their own behavior: those who self-identify as “charming flirts” may not see their actions as harassment, but they’re also more likely to engage with SSB, which often does cross over into harassment. “People generally have positive associations with being a flirt or being charming or having sex appeal… But when we take on that identity, it leads to certain behavioral patterns that reinforce the identity. And then, people use that identity as an excuse,” Kray says.
Further, across a series of six studies, Kray and her team also empirically evaluated the stereotype that it’s subordinate women who strategically leverage sexual advances for personal gain: “[F]or example, the secretary in the office who is low-power might hike up her skirt and flirt with her boss so that she gets better treatment,” Kray observes.
The research shifts the paradigm with which we’ve been primed to view workplace gender dynamics. Pop culture is rife with stereotypes about women “sleeping their way to the top” — a stigmatizing portrayal that undermines the credibility of women in the workplace. Evidently, men engage in sexual behavior toward their female superiors for personal gain too. Visibilizing these operations of power is just the first step toward dismantling damaging narratives. Clearly, beyond individual behavior, there’s a collective unlearning to be done with respect to how women are perceived in the workplace: both as objects of desire, and as objects of scorn for ever expressing any — unlike men, who are rewarded for the latter.
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