Home > Daily Struggles, Sex Discrimination, Sexual Harassment > Sexual Harassment: A Question of Power

Sexual Harassment: A Question of Power

Bora at A Blog Around the Clock alerted me to an article in Science Daily titled Power And Sexual Harassment — Men And Women See Things Differently.

Issues of power, workplace culture and the interpretation of verbal and non-verbal communication associated with sexual harassment were the focus of a study by Debbie Dougherty, assistant professor of communication in the College of Arts and Science at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Working with a large healthcare organization in the Midwest, Dougherty examined the question: why does sexual harassment occur?


Dougherty’s findings show that men and women think differently about sexual harassment. While both men and women understand sexual harassment to be about power, men associate power with position, and assume that only individuals in formal positions of power over someone can sexually harass that person. On the other hand,

Women view power in a more complex manner; formal authority is but one dimension in male-dominated workplaces. Power to women is a negotiated process between the harasser and harassed. Dougherty said women often perceive all members of an organization as possible harassers – thinking it can be initiated by any person who is perceived as having power.

Here I’m thinking of the young men in the study by Margolis, Fisher & Miller who taunted their female classmates about only getting into computer science because they were girls. The male classmates did not have formal authority over females, but they were capable of engaging in sexually harassing behavior and creating a hostile learning environment.
But the Dougherty study may just be looking at comments and behaviors of an explicitly sexual nature. Even so, one need not be in a positon of formal power to engage in harassing behavior. Sexually explicit remarks, jokes, innuendo, and behavior serve to remind women that they are women and not professionals to be taken seriously. This behavior functions, as I said in my previous post, to demarcate the work environment as male territory and define women as interlopers on male turf. It’s like tomcats spraying to mark their territory.
Men may think that their sexual comments don’t qualify as sexual harassment if they are not in formal positions of authority over the women they are speaking to. But they must surely know, somewhere inside, that their behavior is not the kind of collegial behavior one engages in with an equal. Even if they are not consciously aware of exercising the power that comes with their male privilege, they act as they do because they have the authority over women that comes just from being male in a patriarchal society. Dougherty says her study shows how important sexual harassment training is, and I agree with her, if only to make it impossible for men to say they didn’t know it was wrong to piss on other human beings.

  1. Aerik
    April 6, 2007 at 5:33 pm

    Dougherty said women often perceive all members of an organization as possible harassers

    That’s the way I have always seen it. I really dislike being in the same umbrella as a bunch of other men who can only think of social epics as a series of binary power comparisons. Makes me sick, really.

  2. writerdd
    April 6, 2007 at 5:35 pm

    I’m not sure I buy this. Men in groups are just often vulgar and crass. It doesn’t always mean they are trying to harass or demeam women in their workplace. I think it’s a problem to think that everyone in a workplace has to act chaste and “nice” just because women are present. That is just another way of demeaning women, by stating that acceptable behavior in “mixed company” is somehow different.
    Now, that’s not to say that sexual harassment does not exist. But just because the workplace has talk with sexual innuendo or even raunchy jokes being told, does not mean that it is inherently hostile toward women. .

  3. April 6, 2007 at 7:07 pm

    A suggestion: if you are ever somewhere that you can eavesdrop on guys as they work on a project together, listen to the constant stream of insults and demeaning jokes they jostle back and forth among themselves. It isn’t universal, of course, but in most cases they are saying; “I can insult you, therefore you and I are equals.”
    I suspect much of what is thought to be sexual harassment is really a mismatch of expectations. The man who regards a woman as his equal expects that she’ll just deliver a putdown in response. The woman who has been genuinely harassed by some creep who gets off on a power trip may be lumping all men into that group. End result; lawsuits, animosity, everyone (well just guys, actually – women can say whatever they want) walking on eggshells.

  4. April 7, 2007 at 12:39 am

    The problem with arguing that:
    just because the workplace has talk with sexual innuendo or even raunchy jokes being told, does not mean that it is inherently hostile toward women
    or
    the constant stream of insults and demeaning jokes they jostle back and forth among themselves. It isn’t universal, of course, but in most cases they are saying; “I can insult you, therefore you and I are equals.
    is twofold.
    First, examine the content of sexual innuendo or raunchy jokes and you will find that many of them ARE hostile toward women. How can a woman take the message from this that she is an equal when the content of the demeaning jokes by their nature demeans women?
    Second, to assume that how men speak among their friends is appropriate behavior for the workplace is to assume that no professional behavior or courtesy is owed to anyone. It isn’t only women who are uncomfortable with this behavior. Other groups, such as people from other countries also find this behavior uncomfortable. It isn’t at all demeaning toward women to ask men to act in a more mature way in the workplace.
    To say that women just need to understand that this is how men are is not enough. Men also need to understand how women are and hold up their end in a professional relationship.

  5. yevgeniy
    April 9, 2007 at 10:20 am

    “Other groups, such as people from other countries also find this behavior uncomfortable.”
    When I used to work as a laborer in a factory, the guys from other countries were always the first in line to make sexual and demeaning jokes. Of course, if a woman from management came down to the factory, all the innuendo would stop. I’ve come to the conclusion that Westerners are much more enlightened — at least among the people who work in a factory.

  6. April 16, 2007 at 5:24 am

    It doesn’t always mean they are trying to harass or demeam women in their workplace.”

    One doesn’t have to try (ie – have intent) in order for the words or actions to constitute harassment.

    That is just another way of demeaning women, by stating that acceptable behavior in “mixed company” is somehow different.

    Yeah….because guys make catcalls at each other all the time (and mean it).

    The man who regards a woman as his equal expects that she’ll just deliver a putdown in response.

    Judging by the hissy fits they throw immediately following the few times I can come up with a witty response quickly enough….I think not.

    everyone (well just guys, actually – women can say whatever they want) walking on eggshells.

    Right, because we only care about sexual harassment because it annoys us and the only reason anyone in this situation could have to be nervous is because someone might sic lawyers on them.

  7. thorn
    January 14, 2008 at 2:52 pm

    i’ve never felt particularly harrassed by inappropriate comments from ‘the peanut gallery’. but i was an incorrigible smart@ss even when i was in my 20’s, and usually had/have enough mental agility to play verbal ‘crushinator’. especially if a comment is really pernicious.
    know what’s funny? pass 40, get a little grey hair and a coupla wrinkles, and much of the hassle just gooooooes awaaaaaaay. so that kind of thing was just temporary. from when i was 11 ’til i was 39: HAH!

  8. January 14, 2008 at 3:40 pm

    If you didn’t feel harassed, why did you have to play “crushinator”? At some level, the comments were bothersome, because you had to take action to counter them. You may not label what was happening to you as harassment but that doesn’t change the fact that it is exactly what it was.
    “Temporary”, from age 11 to 39? 28 years is temporary? That’s depressing. Having to deal with crap like this from as early as age 11 IS harassment, and even if you develop effective strategies for dealing with it, it takes time and energy to do so, and that’s time and energy drained from some other potentially positive use.

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