Target at the Top: Why Powerful Women Are Sexually Harassed

The counterintuitive ways in which power dynamics impact women in charge.

Posted May 16, 2020

When you hear the words “sexual harassment,” most people envision a scene out of “The Office,” featuring a man in power harassing a female subordinate. True, many instances of sexual harassment fit this pattern, but many don’t. This has always been the case; an accurate assessment of the range of sexual harassment victims is obscured by under-reporting. Remember Demi Moore's performance in the movie Disclosure, portraying a female boss harassing ex-flame Michael Douglas; a situation that initially bred disbelief that a man could be sexually harassed by a beautiful, powerful woman. Yet it happens.

In addition, when visualizing sexual harassment, power dynamics are often typecast as well. One situation that sometimes breeds skepticism and disbelief is when the victim is the one with the powerful position, rather than the perpetrator. Yet it happens. More frequently than we realize.

Image courtesy of Alina Vilchenko on Pexels
Source: Image courtesy of Alina Vilchenko on Pexels

Targeting Power

Research supports the reality that sexual harassment is usually about intimidation, humiliation, domination and degradation, rather than sexual desire. And it is driven by power dynamics. What is not discussed often enough, is that while harassment can be facilitated when a perpetrator has power, it can also be prompted by resentment towards a woman in power. 

Heather McLaughlin et al. examine the phenomenon of powerful women as sexual harassment victims in a piece entitled “Sexual Harassment, Workplace Authority, and the Paradox of Power.”[i] They begin by noting that although power is the central concept behind feminist theories of sexual harassment, few have measured it in terms of workplace authority. Noting that power-threat theories suggest women in authority may be targeted more frequently than women in subordinate roles, they analyzed longitudinal survey data as well as interviews to test their idea.

They found that as compared with non-supervisors, female supervisors were more likely to define their experiences as sexual harassment, and more likely to report the behavior. They explain that sexual harassment “can serve as an equalizer against women in power, motivated more by control and domination than by sexual desire.” Further, they found social isolation to be a mechanism “linking harassment to gender nonconformity and women's authority, particularly in male-dominated work settings.”

McLaughlin et al. explained that while the “vulnerable victims perspective” proposes that authority would function as a protective factor, sparing women from “the suggestive gaze or unwelcome touch of co-workers,” they found that a woman’s position as a supervisor actually increased harassment, consistent with the perspective of power threat.

Their conclusions that female supervisors are more likely to experience sexual harassment in the workplace supported the view that professional interactions are not prompted merely by organizational rank. Instead, they note that the relative power of coworkers is also determined by their gender. In their words, “Although women supervisors’ authority is legitimated by their employer, sexual harassment functions, in part, as a tool to enforce gender-appropriate behavior.”

The authors explain that when the power women have is viewed as easily undermined or illegitimate, harassment is employed as an equalizer—consistent with previous research indicating harassment is about control and domination. Perpetrators in this context can include supervisors, co-workers, and even clients.

Workplace Protection for Everyone

Our mission to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace needs to account for the reality that not only those at the bottom of the organizational chart are targeted. This reality should inform the types of trainings we create, the conversations we have, and the reporting protocol we implement. Just like other victims, women in authority face concerns over disrupting workplace culture, being viewed with skepticism, or being seen as weak or disloyal. These concerns might be uniquely troubling for women in authority, whom we might think should be able to “take it.” 

Training programs should keep pace with research findings in the area of sexual assault. Due to the fact that as McLaughlin et al. note, many people still picture the typical sexual harassment scenario as “involving a sleazy male boss and a powerless female secretary,” acknowledging the harassment experience is much more varied is an important step to improving organizational response.

Although their research discussed the experiences of women in power, many people in the workplace know of powerful men who are targeted as well. Sometimes by women, often by other men, as same-sex harassment is often motivated by the same factors that motivate other perpetrators, including control and domination, not sexual interest.

Acknowledging the wide range of circumstances within which women and men can be both perpetrators and victims is a productive step towards creating policies designed to facilitate a safe, comfortable workplace for everyone.  


[i] McLaughlin, Heather, Christopher Uggen, and Amy Blackstone. 2012. “Sexual Harassment, Workplace Authority, and the Paradox of Power.” American Sociological Review 77 (4): 625–47. doi:10.1177/0003122412451728.