Bill Cosby, Harvey Weinstein, Bill Clinton. They’re among the rich and powerful men hit by charges of sexual harassment. Why does it happen? Good question. Yet, most of the research on the subject is directed at the characteristics of victims rather than on the perpetrators.
Ohio researchers set out to find the answer and found that high-profile sexual harassers may not have been simply exercising their power or seeking sexual satisfaction. Instead their behavior could be related to feeling insecure and believing that others find them ill-suited to or undeserving of their dominant position.
Their study suggests that powerful men are especially inclined to sexually harass others when they worry that they will be perceived as incompetent. Having such a fear was consistently found to predict sexual harassment among men in powerful positions, although the same did not hold true for women. These findings corroborate the theory that sexual harassment is in part a byproduct of a person feeling threatened and wanting to maintain his social status.
“Fearing that others will perceive you as incompetent is a better predictor of sexual harassment than your self-perceived incompetence,” said Leah Halper of Ohio University, one of the researchers whose study was published in Springer’s journal Sex Roles.
“The findings also suggest that men do not necessarily sexually harass women because they seek sexual gratification, but rather because their insecurity about being perceived as incompetent prompts them to want to undermine a woman’s position in the social hierarchy,” added Kimberly Rios, another of the researchers, in a news release.
Halper and Rios believe that sexual harassment in the workplace should be examined more broadly. They say companies should also work towards creating cultures that do not foster feelings of insecurity.
Three different studies
The researchers conducted three different studies using a combination of adults and college students, some of which included only men and some of which included both men and women.
In one study, 273 men had to imagine themselves in the powerful position of a male employer who was in a position of power over a female employee or interviewee. These men were asked to indicate whether they would ask for sexual favors in return for securing her a job, a promotion, or some other job-related benefit. Participants also had to answer questions that measured their self-esteem and how narcissistic they were, as well as how important they perceived others’ opinion and criticism of them.