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In the popular imagination, sexual harassment in the workplace is generally committed by men in positions of power, like the former Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, and directed towards less powerful women under their influence, like aspiring actresses. However, this study uses quantitative and qualitative data to show that women in positions of power (i.e. supervisors) are much more likely to experience workplace sexual harassment than men or less powerful women.

Having power and authority does not protect women from harassment, it actually increases its likelihood.

The most common perpetrators of workplace harassment are male co-workers or clients. Powerful women pose a threat to men’s position in the gender hierarchy, which motivates them to undermine those women and their authority through sexual harassment. This research indicates that harassment also becomes more pronounced in male-dominated work sites, including harassment of men who violate gender norms by acting more “feminine” by traditional standards.


The authors used quantitative and qualitative data from the Youth Development Study, a longitudinal study begun in 1988 among a cohort of St. Paul, Minnesota public high school students. The authors focus on the surveys conducted in 2003 and 2004 when participants were 29 and 30 years old. They analyzed responses from all working participants who answered questions related to sexual harassment in both years (N=522). The authors looked at whether participants reported any harassing behaviours and whether the participant defined these behaviours as sexual harassment. Supervisory authority was used as a measure of workplace power.

The survey recorded participants’ sex as either male or female; gender identity was estimated by asking how feminine participants felt they were on a scale of 1 to 5. Logistic regressions and negative binomial regressions were used to analyze the survey data. Open-ended interviews were also conducted with 33 survey respondents (14 men and 19 women) to learn more about their work histories and interactions at work. Respondents were invited to share what they felt was most important based on the researchers’ interest in harassment. 26 interviewees identified as white and most identified as straight; they worked in a range of supervisory and non-supervisory jobs.


Over one-third of the survey-sample reported experiencing at least one harassing behaviour in 2004, including staring, leering, attempts to discuss sex, inappropriate touching, and being shown offensive material. However, only 7% of respondents labelled these behaviours as sexual harassment (11% of females and 1% of males). Even when controlling for past experience of harassment, female supervisors were 138% more likely to experience any type of harassing behaviours and were 3.5 times more likely to label their experiences sexual harassment. Women who supervised more than three people were more likely to experience harassment than those who supervised fewer people. Interviewees felt that this harassment was intended to “put women in their place.”

Harassment was used as an equalizer against women supervisors, supporting other research showing that harassment is about control and domination, not sexual desire.

Women’s other identities also affected the likelihood of experiencing sexual harassment. Women of colour experienced a higher rate of harassment than white women and non-supervisors of colour were much more likely than white non-supervisors to experience harassment: 47% of white female supervisors reported at least one harassing behaviour, 29% of white non-supervisors did; 43% of supervisors of colour experienced harassment, and 45% of non-supervisors of colour did.

Both qualitative and quantitative data showed that men were the most common harassers, whether the victim was male or female. In terms of organizational power, harassers were more commonly co-workers (of equal or subordinate status) or clients, while victims were most commonly female supervisors. The authors see this as evidence that men are threatened by women in positions of power, which drives them to harass female supervisors. Several interviewees agreed, especially female supervisors working in male-dominated fields like construction. Women in male-dominated industries were more likely to label their experiences as sexual harassment, and interview data suggest that women tended to view harassing behaviours as more menacing or degrading in job sites where they were outnumbered. Women supervisors and women in male-dominated fields often felt isolated, which made them more vulnerable to harassment.

Interviewees reported that women and men who violated gender norms were also more likely to experience harassment—both men who acted more feminine and women working in male-typed jobs.


  • Without effective policies, more power in the workplace is not necessarily better for women–Employers need to consider the possibility of backlash against female supervisors and the different forms backlash may take when promoting diversity in their organizational leadership. Especially if the people promoted will remain relatively isolated as the only woman, or person of colour, in the room. Of course, this doesn’t mean women or people of colour shouldn’t be promoted, it means that clear HR policies and procedures should be put in place to protect these individuals from harassment at a systemic level.
  • Anti-harassment policies and training need to move away from the “boss-harasses-the-secretary” stereotype–Training and policies must reflect the reality of more diverse experiences of sexual harassment, including harassment of supervisors by subordinates. This means allowing people to come forward to report incidents of harassment without worrying that their authority will be undermined.


Sexual Harassment, Workplace Authority, and the Paradox of Power


Heather McLaughlin, Christopher Uggen, and Amy Blackstone


University of Minnesota, University of Maine


American Sociological Review






Research brief prepared by

Rachael Goodman