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Women’s harassment risks increase with authority

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Women’s harassment risks increase with authority

From a post by HR daily:

In a study with implications for managing workplace behaviour, a researcher has found women's sexual harassment risks increase with their level of authority.

The finding goes against common perceptions that women who occupy supervisory positions have enough "informal power" to prevent sexual harassment, says Belgian researcher Jan Wynen, who analysed more than 102,000 responses to the 2013 Australian Public Service census.

According to Wynen, the "traditional cultural image" of harassers being male supervisors and targets being female subordinates "has not kept pace with changing workplace realities".

"There is an increasing body of literature that emphasises that females with formal authority are in fact more often the targets of sexual harassment compared to their counterparts without similar authority," he says.

This could be because society privileges "a single normative ideal of male behaviour", and women who occupy positions of authority challenge that ideal.

"Surprisingly, harassers in such cases are often men who occupy less formal powerful positions within an organisation," Wynen notes.

Likelihood of sexual harassment strongly linked to age

The link between gender and workplace authority is not as clear-cut as expected, Wynen says. The two factors have a strong effect on the likelihood of experiencing sexual harassment, but they interplay in a complicated way, which is strongly dependent on age.

Women are almost 90 per cent more likely to be sexually harassed than men, and when men attain supervisory authority, the likelihood of them experiencing sexual harassment decreases significantly, he found.

When women gain positions of authority, however, the change in likelihood is insignificant – unless they are aged between 30 and 44, in which case the risk increases.

A possible explanation for this is that women under the age of 45 who are climbing the corporate ladder "are not yet experienced in dealing with sexual harassment", while older women with supervisory authority "have become more competent in dealing with potential harassers", Wynen says.

He says the increased risk for women in roles of authority makes sense because male supervisors "confirm the presumptive superiority of men", which makes them less likely to be targeted, whereas female supervisors challenge it.

Recognise diverse harassment realities

"Sexual harassment is often still merely regarded as the male boss abusing his position in the workplace to harass his female secretary," Wynen says, but the reality is far more complex, and organisational policies and training must "reflect the diversity of harassment experiences".

In cases where the victims are in senior positions, policies and cultures must allow them to come forward "without undermining their own authority", he adds.

Wynen's study also found that work environments where employers give both formal and informal feedback have lower risks of sexual harassment.

"This is to be expected; the existence of an open culture has been found to positively affect the work environment, leading to a lower likelihood of sexual harassment."

Sexual Harassment: The Nexus Between Gender and Workplace Authority: Evidence from the Australian Public Service, Jan Wynen, Australian Journal of Public Administration, July 2016

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