People who want power are more likely to engage in sexual harassment than those who actually have power, according to new research
Good morning, Broadsheet readers! Brittney Griner loses her appeal in a Russian court; female bodybuilders allege widespread sexual misconduct in the sport; and it’s not power that causes sexual harassment. Have a lovely Wednesday.
Power trip Harvey Weinstein, whose criminal trial is underway in Los Angeles this week, embodies the stereotype of a sexual misconduct perpetrator: a man in a position of power who wields that power over others.
But according to new research from Vanderbilt University, sexual harassment in the workplace is less likely to come from a figure like Weinstein and more likely to come from those who aspire to emulate his onetime professional stature. The desire for power, rather than power itself, is associated with sexually harassing behaviors.
“Power doesn’t cause sexual harassment,” says Jessica Kennedy, an associate professor of management at Vanderbilt and a coauthor of the paper published last month in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. “Even though you see cases that look like a lot of high-power men [are] doing this…it’s the desire for power.”
These findings are gendered; women in lower power roles with “desire for power” were less likely to engage in harassing behaviors. The researchers conducted six studies in which participants answered questions about their self-perception, sense of power, ambivalent sexism, and flirting styles and participated in various workplace scenarios.
Someone with a “desire for power” is likely to exhibit other characteristics like narcissism and a desire to control people and compete with others for that control, Kennedy says.
The authors’ findings also shed light on the role an organization’s culture can play in encouraging sexual harassment. Cutthroat workplaces can foster a desire for power. That ambition, not for professional success but power for power’s sake, is not as present in less competitive environments.
Kennedy says the lesson for women, especially those in male-dominated fields, is to pay close attention to organizational culture—not just gender diversity stats.
For men worried that women will misinterpret well-intentioned words or actions, Kennedy says she hopes the research clarifies why that is a nonissue. (She points to ex–New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his insistence, when accused of harassment, that he was only flirting.) “Harassment isn’t just sexual attraction gone wrong,” she says. “It’s really about having the wrong motives when you relate to people.”
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IN CASE YOU MISSED IT
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“We play better than most of the men that are in our industry. There’s a lot of men that we can run circles around.”
—Este Haim, bassist for the band Haim alongside her two sisters
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