Sexual harassment is not about sex. It’s about power. If you’ve read our sexual harassment crib sheet you’ll be clued up on this already.

More specifically it’s an abuse of power and the assertion of one person’s perceived power over another.

The Quatrz at Work website has published an article by Mary Slaughter, Khalil Smith and David Rock exploring this very issue, entitled “The brain science that could help explain sexual harassment”.

The article draws heavily on Pamela Smith’s 2006 Journal of Personality and Social Psychology study into the ways people in power think differently to their “lower-power peers”, as well as bringing together other research findings to assess how power affects a person’s perception of the world and those in it.

It is worth a read, but I’ve done the leg work for you and summarised the findings below, as well as adding a thought or two of my own. As always, it’s an open dialogue with Tell Jane, so feel free to share your thoughts in the comments section below.


“Power doesn’t corrupt – it amplifies goals”

I’m going to start where the article ends. With power “Good goals become great goals, bad goals become toxic.” It is the motivation for the use of power that is key.

So why do some people abuse this power? The article identifies four ways that power affects the brain and acts as a motivation for harassment:

  1. “Powerful people consider others’ perspectives less”

Power is relative – you have power when there is a perceived lack in another. But those with power are less likely to be concerned by what their lower-power peers think of them and in turn be less empathetic – and indeed, as the article suggests, tend to take a more cynical stance when dealing with claims of workplace harassment.

This is a concerning assumption but perhaps it goes some way to explaining the alarming lack of reporting as highlighted in the TUC’s 2016 Still just a bit of banter report, whereby 79% of women who had experienced sexual harassment at work did not report it to their employer, one of the main reasons being that they wouldn’t be believed or taken seriously.


  1. “Power turns people into abstract thinkers”

With power comes heightened insight and in turn the requirement for foresight. Those in power need to think differently – they are no longer concerned by the day-to-day, but the bigger picture and are encouraged to have this outlook, to think big!

There is a suggestion here that with “blue sky thinking” and “dreaming big” there is a risk of processing “information in a more abstract manner”; that is, the way in which you perceive whether your behaviour is or isn’t acceptable or the reaction of the other person (with less power) to your behaviour.

Abstract thinking is great for harnessing ambition, but it also risks a skewed perspective. And as a company, you are responsible for cultivating and harnessing this thinking for good – we’ve got our work cut out here as business owners and HR professionals, hey?!


  1. “The experience of power increases optimism about risky decisions”

Coupled with abstract thinking is a heightened sense of optimism about achieving goals, and in order to achieve those goals there is often an element of risk.

What if that optimism spurs you on to make risky decisions or perform risky behaviours? How do we avoid employees indulging in risky behaviour? The article suggests a wake-up call to the reality of the risk: “when the risks are tied to bank accounts and budgets, powerful people are more inclined to listen”.

But this tends to focus on the consequence of the behaviour, we need to lay the foundations and make explicit that inappropriate behaviour is not tolerated. And we do that by setting clear guidelines for a zero tolerance approach to misconduct and upholding these guidelines in responding to claims.


  1. Power leads to people seeing the world in terms of goals

And seeing others as pawns or facilitators in helping them to achieve these goals: “power leads people to objectify other people, see them in instrumental terms”.

But as highlighted above it is the motivation behind these goals which is important here. What are the motivating factors at your organisation to achieve, excel and be rewarded? How does your company monitor performance? Are they motivated by achieving targets and income generation, or by enhancing workplace culture and upholding company values?


Are you ready to change your workplace culture? Start by talking to Tell Jane.


Want to find out latest best practice on prevention methods for harassment, discrimination and bullying? Why not sign up to one of our upcoming workshops? Click here for more information


Leave a Reply

Back to top