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Leadership roles don’t protect women from sexual harassment

Who do you suppose is more likely to experience sexual harassment in your workplace: Your female manager or their female administrative assistant?

It might surprise you to learn that the manager is more at risk.

Women in positions of power get harassed more often — not less

Most people picture the victims of sexual harassment (who are primarily women) to be powerless, low-level employees. In reality, the higher a woman climbs on the corporate ladder, the more likely she is to experience that kind of workplace abuse.

A study that examined the experiences of women leaders between 1999 and 2019 across the United States, Japan and Sweden indicated that the experience is the same wherever they happen to be. A woman in a leadership role in her company is 30% to 100% more likely to be sexually harassed than women in lower positions, regardless of her age.

Why the counter-intuitive findings? Researchers aren’t entirely sure, but there is plenty of speculation:

  • Some men resent women for being in leadership roles, so sexual harassment is a way of psychologically “taking them down a peg.” This is particularly true in male-dominated workplaces or industries.
  • There’s a sense that a woman in power has more to lose by resisting the harassment. If it comes from below, complaining may make her look “weak” in front of her employees. If it comes from above, she may fear demotion, the loss of her income and damage to her professional reputation.

In essence, moving up the corporate ladder seems to put a target on the back of many female managers and executives. That doesn’t mean, of course, that any woman should tolerate sexual harassment or discrimination in the workplace. You have a right to fight back — and you should assert it.