Sexual Harrassment of Independent Women

Independent, assertive women with leadership qualities are often a company’s top performers. That’s the good news.

The bad news, according to recent research, is that women with these traits are more likely to be sexually harassed.

And of all the difficulties faced by women who take leadership positions or roles, sexual harassment – sexual comments, unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion – is the most distressing, taking a harder toll on morale than office gossip or snide comments.

That’s because the personality traits of independence, assertiveness and leadership that are considered successful in the business world are often viewed as “masculine” characteristics.

Conversely, traits such as being warm, modest and deferential, are thought of as “feminine” and generally not associated with leadership and assertiveness-traits commonly paired with success in people’s minds.

A recent research study found that rather than being motivated by sexual desire, sexual harassment is motivated by a wish to punish women who blur gender distinctions. Women coming up through the ranks or entering a traditionally male work environment may threaten some men’s sense of security and status. The dynamic is similar to harassment of minorities who threaten a majority group’s dominant position in the workplace.

Jennifer Berdahl, at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto, found that women who behaved independently and assertively and spoke out were more likely to be sexually harassed than women who fit feminine ideals of deference, modesty and warmth. Berdahl noted this was especially true in male-dominated workplaces.

In her study of 238 employees representing manufacturing plants and community service centres, the researcher found that in male-dominated workplaces, women who are “masculine”–highly assertive, independent and dominant, or “androgynous”- those who balance assertion and independence with warmth and humility – experienced more than twice as much harassment as women who tend to meet feminine ideals of deference, care giving and modesty. As well, these “masculine” and “androgynous” women experienced eight times as much harassment as men.

Recognizing that independent women with leadership and assertiveness qualities are more likely to be harassed is important for the women themselves and for their employer. In addition, it’s important to understand that sexual harassment is motivated by the need to reassert a dominant position in the organization rather than a matter of satisfying sexual desire.

What Can Employers Do?

Berdahl notes that employers who recognize that sexual harassment is not the aggressive pursuit of sexual satisfaction will craft policies that are less connected to monitoring employee sexual behaviour and more focused on creating respectful work environments Ensuring that staff treat each other respectfully, are aware of what constitutes harassment and why it occurs is key. Helping supervisors identify and deal with harassment is important.

This means training supervisors to discuss unwanted sexual attention with staff and being clear that this behaviour is not allowed at the company. Understanding that women who assert themselves and display less stereotypical feminine traits are more likely to be sexually harassed will help managers ask about and keep tabs on women with these qualities in the organization. Nurturing leadership qualities in all staff and encouraging their use through coaching and development opportunities, sends a message through the organization that leadership qualities in both sexes are valued at the company.

With the leadership vacuum left by retiring baby boomers, companies can ill-afford to have staff with qualities of assertion and independence undermined in any way. Helping women slip into leadership roles and supporting their efforts is key in filling positions and retaining staff once they are in the position. When labour shortages loom, organizations are at a disadvantage if they cannot provide a respectful work environment. Quality personnel will leave for workplaces that value their contribution rather than view it as threatening.

What Can Staff Do?

Refusing to be party to sexually harassing another individual is the first step. The organization needs to set the proper tone, but this does not absolve the individual for responsibility for their behaviour. Analyze how respectful you believe your behaviour to be, empathize with the women who have been harassed and work to address issues of harassment at the work place. The recipient of sexual harassment needs support, validation and understanding. If staff can intervene on harassing behaviour they need the means to do it. How does the company want personnel to handle witnessing harassment? Giving staff the tools to deal with the issue is a powerful way to make harassment a thing of the past at your workplace.

If you are being harassed, find out if the company will be help by activating its harassment policies. If the company wants to deal with the issue instead of sidelining it, it is important that the policies reflect the need for a respectful tone at work. When dealing with people who are harassing you, be sure to be clear that you do not like the behaviour, you do not think it’s funny and you want the perpetrator or perpetrators to stop. The behaviour will not go away on its own, so take an active role.

Sexual harassment is damaging to the workforce and the company. It creates an insidious culture of disrespect that undermines women in assertive roles and further increases incivility at work for everyone. Where there is sexual harassment you’ll find other forms of disrespect, ignored at the company’s peril. Sexual harassment can be the canary in the coal mine, signaling toxicity that left unchecked could hurt the bottom line and the workforce.

Sexual harassment can happen in any organization and all-male environments are most vulnerable, according to Berdahl’s research. Armed with this knowledge, be proactive, seek to identify harassing interactions and get ready to deal with the topic head-on, especially if your business hires only a few women.

To do otherwise is to keep heads in the sand when it comes to understanding what sexual harassment actually is and how to prevent it. Ultimately, the manner in which we deal with these matters of respect will predict the long-term success of the organization.

Dr. Jennifer Newman and Dr. Darryl Grigg are registered psychologists and directors of Newman & Grigg Psychological and Consulting Services Ltd., a Vancouver-based corporate training and development partnership. They can be contacted at

Identifying information in cases cited has been changed to protect confidentiality.

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