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Can sexual harassment happen from “down the ladder?”

Women have made significant strides in corporate America, and it’s no longer unusual to see women in leadership roles in most industries.

Unfortunately, being in a position of authority or power in the workplace doesn’t shield a woman from sexual harassment. In fact, it probably increases the risk that a woman will eventually face this issue.

It’s called the “paradox of power”

A study that spanned three countries and a 20-year period found startling results: Even though the stereotypical sexual harassment victim is a woman in a low-ranking position, like a line worker or a secretary, women in supervisory positions were actually 30% to 100% more likely to be victimized.

Some of that harassment undoubtedly comes from above, but the study also found that women in leadership roles were also targeted by their male subordinates. Here’s why:

  • Sexual harassment isn’t about sex, but power. A woman in a leadership role may challenge certain established gender roles or norms, and that can trigger reactions from some men who feel threatened by a woman in authority. Sexual harassment can be a way for those men to try to reassert control.
  • Some people are unwilling to believe a woman can earn her position. Stereotypes and personal biases can make some men believe that any woman who makes it to a position of power must have “slept her way to the top.” Their jealousy can cause them to lash out in inappropriate ways, including sexually.

Not only can sexual harassment come from down the corporate ladder, but women in leadership roles are often even more reluctant than women in subordinate positions to report their experiences. They often fear the professional repercussions far more deeply than others, knowing that they may be branded as “weak.”

If you’ve been the target of sexual harassment in your workplace, there are ways to fight back. Learning more about your legal options can help you decide what steps you want to take to protect your future.