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Crossing the Line to Communicate Power

Sep 30, 2022
New research finds that subordinate men, not high power men, are more likely to engage in sexually harassing behaviors

By Lacie Blankenship

Professor Kennedy

Professor Kennedy

After the #metoo movement’s horrifying tales of bathrobes, roofies, and casting couches, the sexually predatory boss is almost a cultural trope. But does power really promote sexual harassment? New research from Jessica A. Kennedy, Associate Professor of Management, explores the relationship between gender, power, and sexually harassing behavior in the workplace. Professor Kennedy discusses her latest study – Who do they think they are?: A social-cognitive account of gender differences in social sexual identity and behavior at work – in a Question and Answer below. 

You’ve co-authored a new study that looks at gender and sexual behavior in the workplace. Can you tell us more about the study and what the findings were? 

We looked at sexual behaviors that were rated low in warmth and high in dominance, and therefore likely to be perceived as offensive and sexually harassing. As you might guess, gender differences emerge for this behavior, but holding high levels of power and activating goals to connect with others eliminate the gender differences. I find that encouraging. It was also surprising to us that desiring a powerful image (not holding power) promoted this behavior among men. Subordinate men were more likely to desire a powerful image than men who actually held power, and therefore, subordinate men were more likely to engage in this behavior with a female boss than were either high-power men or subordinate women with a male boss. 

How does your research connect with gender stereotypes? 

I think there are old stereotypes about people who sleep their way to the top, and I think women were historically stereotyped as doing so more than men, but that stereotype is outdated already, and it’s in complete contradiction with what we find here.  Lacking power did not promote sexual behavior among women interacting with powerful men.  

Otherwise, stereotypes don’t play much of a role in explaining what we find here, but what does is the self-concept.  We wondered what people could possibly be thinking when they engaged in behaviors like asking, “Have you ever had a workplace relationship?” or “Do you like to make the first move?” in an interview setting where they are getting acquainted with people of the other sex. We find that people’s self-concept helps them to rationalize this behavior. Greater endorsement of statements like, “I am a big flirt,” “I know how to turn on the charm,” and “When I want something from someone, I know how to be irresistible” comprise what we call a social sexual identity, or self-defining as a person who leverages sex appeal in pursuit of personally valued gains. I think this construct helps us understand what people are thinking when they do these things. When you see these events in the news, it can be difficult to understand how the behaviors are consistent with any type of self-regulation process, but our studies help to provide some answers. 

What lessons can workplace leaders take from your study to improve their work environment? 

Encouraging people to act from the right motives – connecting with others, not establishing a powerful image – might help to mitigate sexual harassment. It’s the power motive, not holding high levels of power, that is problematic. Leaders can model and reinforce the right intentions and create cultures that emphasize connection, not appearing powerful (especially when you aren’t). As a behavioral ethicist, I believe in the power of cultivating the right intentions within yourself and within the workplaces you lead. Organizational cultures inform our self-concept and our intentions. Our findings also suggest that leaders should watch out for contrapower harassment and have a plan to deal with it.. Sexual harassment from less powerful men to more powerful women is likely to be more common than predatory bosses, according to our study, and should not be ignored or dismissed.

 Why is it important to study and understand these workplace behaviors?

Leaders are responsible for creating environments that help people perform their best.  Sexually harassing others is pretty much the antithesis of doing that.  It doesn’t respect the dignity of anyone involved and it generates a major cognitive load that is distracting, so understanding why people engage in those behaviors is important if we want fair, efficient workplaces where people can do their best work. 

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