Suzanne Lachmann Psy.D.

Me Before We

Levels of Male-to-Female Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual harassment of women by men can fit into five categories.

Posted May 15, 2019

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Source: iStock

While there are numerous forms of sexual harassment across many forums, this article will focus on one specific dynamic: when male-to-female sexual harassment occurs in the workplace. First and foremost, like any form of sexual harassment, male to female sexual harassment is an incredibly complicated phenomenon. It occurs in some workplaces, but certainly not all.

 In its most extreme form, males who hold “superior” positions in the job hierarchy use their power to manipulate the career trajectories of females. They deliberately, with intent; objectify, shame, belittle, attempt to control, and assert their sexual impulses on females who are forced to depend on them for career advancement, or even to keep their job. These males have no remorse and take pride in getting female “underlings” to bend to their will.  

Way down on the other end of the spectrum in its “mildest” form are males in positions of power who are genuinely unaware of, and unintentionally out of step with the way their words and actions are experienced by the female. They may not even register that there is a power dynamic at all. To them, females are “equal” humans to be respected, regardless of where they fall in comparison in career hierarchy.

Like any form of sexual harassment, male to female workplace harassment falls on a spectrum from most to least severe. There are levels of intensity and intention. I delineate the levels below to help you organize your understanding of, or, in some cases your experience of male to female harassment in a career setting.

Of note: There are many levels within these levels which are contingent upon how the harassment is perpetrated, and how it is received. Between these two extremes, the dynamics of sexual harassment can be highly nuanced. They depend on the male’s respect for the female’s boundaries, what the female’s boundaries are, and how she experiences his words and actions towards her. Here I present a rough overview ranging from the most extreme, malignant to the most innocuous, benign forms of male to female sexual harassment in the workplace. The levels I describe below specifically address the male’s conduct and do not account for how the female reacts to his conduct. 

1. At the worst end of the spectrum are predators with no conscience. They are abusive by nature and have snarling disrespect and zero regard for the feelings of females in the workplace. To him, she is only an object to prey upon, extort, humiliate, or shun. These males are not capable of remorse; they are sociopaths, devoid of the empathy that should naturally be associated with their actions.

2. Next on the spectrum are bullies and sadists who, somewhere deep within their core, may be capable of experiencing some guilt, and may be aware that what they are doing is wrong. However, despite any vague awareness they might have that their actions are wrong, they are unwilling or even incapable of stopping themselves from predatory actions toward females in their charge. Males in this category are too disrespectful and too abhorrent to place any semblance of decency above their need, desire, or urge to intimidate, harm, and belittle females. 

Because the outward words and actions of men in these first two categories are so similar, it can be difficult to distinguish between them. You would have to know what’s in the perpetrator’s mind, whether the male feels the weight of his actions and chooses to ignore them, or lacks the ability to feel empathy altogether. Of course, for men in this second category, it may not matter. Regardless of awareness, their intention remains to hurt, intimidate, and shame.

3. Next is a gigantic pool of males, a range within the range, who commit offenses for various reasons at various times under the mistaken assumption that they are more wanted than they actually are. Many of these men in positions of authority did necessarily create an environment of exploitation of females in the workplace, but they have perpetuated it. The vicious cycle/recurring dynamic of having their power validated can result in them losing sight of the emotional damage they are inflicting on females in subordinate positions. Because their environment has continually reinforced their importance, and their position within the work hierarchy has prevented them from facing consequence, through time, their behavior can become more and more callous. 

For many of the males on the slightly more mild end of this category, if their conduct is exposed, and they are confronted, it’s as if their callouses have been scraped. Consequently, what follows is emotional bleeding, pain, and rawness. As these males are forced to come to terms with the idea that their behaviors were not mutual, and rather were for their own, one-sided benefit, intense shame and remorse ensue. For these men, underneath their admittedly, inexcusably callous behaviors lies raw skin. These males are capable of empathy but lost access to it because of the male to female power dynamic in the workplace. A major difference between men in this category and those in the first two is that when forced to face the pain they've caused, they can become overtaken by remorse.

4. Next on the spectrum are males who may inadvertently cross lines and make females uncomfortable with the way they relate. These males don't always read boundary signals correctly, but if they do, they become far more respectful. They do not intend to violate boundaries but can get “carried away.” Fortunately, they learn quickly, readily, and graciously not to behave that way again. They are also not aware that they may be abusing their power, but if that scenario becomes clear to them, they back off respectfully with no threats or ramifications. It does not make them right, but it does make them human. It’s important to note that men in this category can recognize and quickly regret their behavior in the moment. Awareness of their boundary violations can also develop in retrospect, as they hear about incidents of sexual harassment in the workplace, and/or as they raise daughters.

5. Finally in its most innocuous, most benign form are males who have maintained physical, emotional, sexual, managerial, collegial boundaries, pretty much without a hitch. But their imperfections, along with the complicated and continually shifting nature of social norms in the workplace can make respecting boundaries a challenge every day. At this end of the spectrum, males don’t get carried away when they are in positions of power. Rather, they do their best to stay conscious and respectful of female dignity and boundaries. But, sometimes they, like everyone else, make mistakes. At this end, offenses are a combination of the male’s intentions and the female’s perceptions. Here, a male may have been able to pal around with one female coworker in a certain way but another female may experience his actions differently. 

At the worst end of the spectrum, it’s a no-brainer that the intention is to harm, intimidate, exploit, shame, and control the female with no regard whatsoever for her feelings. Like any spectrum, the level of male to female sexual harassment in the workplace becomes more nuanced and less extreme. One important way to gauge such harassment is by determining the extent to which they intend to exploit females in the workplace. Looking at male to female sexual harassment on a spectrum can be a helpful way to identify harassment as well as to cultivate and maintain collectively appropriate boundaries in the workplace.