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Gender and Power: The Inequality in Sexual Advances at Work

CLA’s affiliated Institute for Contemporary Leadership recently conducted a study on the factors that impact men’s and women’s career advancement. The study was broadly focused and examined variables ranging from organizational influencers to social dynamics. In this post, we interpret the findings relating to sexual advances involving a male and a female.[1] We are sharing these findings first because they strikingly demonstrate the persistence of unequal impact of similar behaviors on women and men.

 

The moment we hear sexual advances at work, our minds tend to head straight for sexual harassment. And, by all means, sexual advances in the workplace may be harassment if they are not welcomed (met with consent) or are not stopped in short order when met with an unwelcome response. However, even when they do not constitute harassment, sexual advances in the workplace tend to amplify, rather than reduce, the unequal power distribution between women and men. 

 

Inevitably, when people spend a large percentage of their time working in close proximity, attractions and romantic interest, in addition to friendships, will develop between some people. Indeed, 68% of our sample reported that someone in their place of work had made advances toward them at some point in their career. This included 38% of the men we sampled and 82% of the women. However, our data show that the power relationship between the subject and object of the advances differs for women and men. Women experience advances far more often from male Superiors in their workplace – men with more workplace power – while men report that their Peers – women with equal power to them – are more likely to be the source of advances. Thus, sexual advances by men towards women are clearly being made in differential power relationships, increasing the potential for discriminatory experiences and negative professional impact.

 

We recognize that there are a number of reasons why these differences could occur between male and female experiences. First of all, given the well-documented decreasing female representation as one moves up the corporate ladder, men are less likely to have women bosses than the reverse. Additionally, as women do rise in their careers and note the lack of other women at high levels, they may be more cautious and less likely to make advances toward male subordinates, for fear of risking their position. 

 

With that said, interestingly, no female participants in our study reported sexual advances made by direct reports. We think it unlikely that the executive women in our sample did not have male direct reports, suggesting that power protects women from sexual advances in the workplace. Indeed, one female private equity partner we work with shared that she has experienced less discrimination from members of portfolio company management teams as she has risen in her career because, she believes, she now determines their compensation.

 

In relationships with power differentials, it is more difficult to tease out whether sexual advances that lead to a relationship are truly welcomed or freely consented to (which is why there are policies against such relationships). Clearly those with less power are less protected in these situations. Because women are more likely to experience this power differential than are men, at this point, they are the ones who are more vulnerable to advances, and their consequences, made by superiors. The fact that men rarely make advances on women with greater power suggests that the advance, when the man is a superior, is actually a function of the unequal power relationship rather than incidental to it. Working toward greater parity in power – e.g., with more equal representation of women at all levels – is an essential aspect of eliminating the unequal impact of sexual advances at work in the age of #MeToo.

[1] This study did not delve into same-sex relationship at work, though other research suggest that some similar dynamics may be at play. 



If you’re interested in discussing how these issues are at play in your company and how to address them, reach out to Contemporary Leadership Advisors at CMitamura@CLAdvisors.com.



Chelsea Mitamura, Ph.D. 

Contemporary Leadership Advisors


i Lyness, K. S., & Thompson, D. E. (2000). Climbing the corporate ladder: Do female and male executives follow the same route? Journal of Applied Psychology, 85, 86–101.


 
Chelsea Mitamura, Ph.D.

Chelsea is a consulting psychologist focused broadly on leadership development and more specifically on diversity and inclusion, team building and the advancement of women leaders. Chelsea completed her M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in Psychology at the University of Wisconsin- Madison and her B.A. at Vassar College.

 

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