Can sexual harassment happen from a subordinate?

When people think of sexual harassment in the workplace, the stereotypical image is the lecherous boss chasing a secretary around the desk – or women in male-dominated industries being subjected to hazing by their male co-workers.

It might surprise you to learn, then, that the women in positions of authority experience sexual harassment on the job even more than women in subordinate roles.

How is this even possible?

Roughly 98% of companies have specific anti-harassment policies in their handbooks, but 35% of women say they’ve still experienced sexual harassment. The big surprise, however, came from a study by the Swedish Institute for Social Research at Stockholm University that looked at the experiences of women between 1999 and 2019 in the U.S., Japan and Sweden.

The results from all three countries were surprisingly similar: Women in leadership roles were 30 to 100 times more likely to experience sexual harassment than their lower-ranking peers. Researchers called this the “paradox of power,” because instead of their position protecting them from harassment, it actually opens the door to whole new levels of abuse.

Essentially, women in authority seem to present a challenge to a certain subset of abusers. They end up being targeted both by harassers who outrank them and those who do not – and they may feel more pressure than women in subordinate roles to keep quiet about their experiences.

If they are being harassed by someone that is above them in authority, they may (rightfully) worry that a complaint will torpedo their career and they’ll lose all of their hard-earned progress in their field. If they’re being harassed by someone below them on the corporate ladder, they may worry that they’ll look “weak” for making a complaint.

Women have long faced problems with sexual harassment in the workplace, and moving into an elevated or executive position doesn’t create any kind of protection. In fact, moving up the corporate ladder just makes the harassment harder to avoid. With the right legal guidance, however, you can fight back.



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