Barack Obama and Sheryl Sandberg Say Power Is an Antidote to Harassment. It's Not So Simple.
In the on-going conversation about sexual harassment, the issue of power has repeatedly bubbled up. Women’s lack of power is seen as making them more vulnerable to abuse and women’s gaining it is being peddled as a possible solution. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg called out the issue earlier this month—”It’s the power, stupid,” she wrote in a Facebook post.
“Ultimately, the thing that will bring the most to change our culture is the one I’ve been writing and talking about for a long time: having more women with more power,” she wrote.
Likewise, former President Barack Obama urged more women to enter positions of power, “because men seem to be having some problems these days.” And Ellevest co-founder Sallie Krawcheck wrote that assuming more power in her career made her “a little less fraught to deal with the inevitable.”
But Krawcheck’s op-ed made an important point; that the abuse didn’t stop as she climbed the corporate ladder, she just felt more comfortable addressing it. (Sandberg, for her part, says she experienced abuse “less and less frequently” as she gained seniority. But such moments “still happen every so often, even in my current job.”)
Having power doesn’t exempt women from sexual harassment; on the contrary, it seems to welcome abuse.
A 2012 study published in the American Sociological Review found that “workplace power is a significant predictor of harassment for females.”
Female supervisors, the study found, “report a rate of harassment 73% greater than that of nonsupervisors.” Not only that, they also report “a more varied and sustained form of harassment.”
Why? The study suggests that women who diverge from rigid gender expectations by wielding workplace authority are harassed in efforts to “enforce gender-appropriate behavior.”
“When women’s power is viewed as illegitimate or easily undermined, co-workers, clients, and supervisors appear to employ harassment as an ‘equalizer’ against women supervisors,” the study says. “[H]arassment is less about sexual desire than about control and domination.”
But these findings don’t necessarily undercut the idea that putting more women in positions of power will crack down on harassment. The study’s female subjects repeatedly cited isolation as one reason for the harassment. “They’d say, ‘I was the only woman in my company; my colleagues didn’t think women could do this work, they just saw me as being a nag,'” co-author Heather McLaughlin, a sociology professor at Oklahoma State University, told me.
Therefore, if more women collectively enter rungs of management previously reserved for men, abuse could in fact decrease—not necessarily because they have power, but because they have power together.
“I do think that there is safety in numbers,” McLaughlin says.