Sexual harassment often stems from an imbalance of power. The reasons are clear enough: Studies have shown that holding a dominant position in an organization or an industry can inspire feelings of entitlement and can reduce empathy.
But recent research qualifies that equation, suggesting such behavior may be driven by a toxic mix of power and nagging feelings of inadequacy.
A study published last year finds proclivity toward sexual harassment is greater in men who find themselves in a position of authority after years of feeling chronically powerless. And new research provides evidence that men (but not women) are more inclined to sexually harass others when they worry they might be perceived as incompetent.
This suggests the predatory behavior of so many high-profile men may reflect not their high status per se, but “more from a belief that others found them ill-suited for their dominant position,” write Ohio University psychologists Leah Halper and Kimberly Rios.
Their study, in the journal Sex Roles, suggests harassment is sometimes prompted by “a fear that others would consider them incapable or undeserving of power.” Some men see sexually aggressive behavior as a way “to undermine a woman’s position in the social hierarchy,” Rios said in announcing the findings.
The researchers describe a series of studies, the first of which featured 273 adult men recruited online. Participants began by completing a questionnaire regarding their “concerns about being criticized, or negatively judged, by others.” Statements such as “I am frequently afraid of people noticing my shortcomings” were evaluated on a scale of one (“not at all characteristic of me”) to five (“extremely characteristic of me”).
After filling out similar surveys measuring self-esteem and narcissism, participants read “10 brief scenarios in which a male protagonist has the power to sexually exploit a female subordinate with impunity.”
A typical one featured a job interview in which they imagined themselves in the role of an executive who interviewed an attractive woman for a job, and had the opportunity to ask her for sexual favors in exchange for a recommendation. For each vignette, the men rated the likelihood they would engage in the predatory or harassing behavior on a one-to-five scale.
The key result: Those who were fearful of being judged as inadequate were more likely to endorse the bad behavior. This suggests “sexual harassment may not only come from a place of entitlement, but also from a place of insecurity,” the researchers write.
A follow-up study was similarly structured, except that it included 107 women along with 90 men. (All read scenarios in which they held power over people of the opposite sex.) For men, the researchers replicated the results of the first survey, but they found no such pattern for women.
The findings “provide support for the theory that powerful men are especially inclined to sexually harass to the extent that they worry their incompetence will be uncovered by others,” the researchers write. These results, along with those of the aforementioned 2017 study, suggest “sexual harassment is triggered by a mismatch between one’s current state of power (or lack thereof) and one’s feelings.”
Halper and Rios argue that, if companies want to get at the roots of this behavior, they should work toward creating a culture that does not foster feelings of insecurity. Their work suggests women are less likely to endure harassment if they work for organizations where the men are secure in their status.