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Men Who Fear Being Viewed as Incompetent More Likely to Sexually Harass Subordinates: Study

Men who feel their “social status is threatened” are more likely to sexually harass their female subordinates, according to newly published research. However, the same cannot be said for women, note the authors of “Feeling Powerful but Incompetent: Fear of Negative Evaluation Predicts Men’s Sexual Harassment of Subordinates.”


The research is timely as #MeToo has continued to gain traction over the last nine months. The movement began with disgraced movie producer Harvey Weinstein, who his victims say used his authority over vulnerable actresses hoping to advance their careers in male-dominated Hollywood to sexually assault and rape women.

The study, from Ohio University and published this week in “Sex Roles: A Journal of Research,” sought to determine if certain personality traits could indicate likelihood of sexual harassment in men and women. Researchers performed three separate experiments and drew together the conclusions of each.

In the first trial, researchers asked male participants how likely they would be to sexually propisiton a female subordinate if they had power over her in different hypothetical situations. The men took on the role of interviewing women for a potential job.

To provide an example, in one scenario, the male responder is asked to imagine that he is an executive in a large corporation, 42 years old, and secure in his job. The male responder is also asked to imagine he is interviewing candidates and an applicant named Michelle S. tells him during her interview that she desperately needs the job. The vignette also states that the male responder is attracted to Michelle S. The question assessing sexual harassment in this scenario is: “Assuming that you are secure enough in your job that no possible reprisals could happen to you, would you offer her the job in exchange for sexual favors” rated on a scale from 1 (not at all likely) to 5 (very likely). A similarly worded question is used to measure sexual harassment in each of the other scenarios.

“These findings suggest that sexual harassment may not only come from a place of entitlement, but also from a place of insecurity,” the authors concluded from the first study.

The second study focused not on sexual harassment but on something more subtle: behavior sexual harassment, or gender harassment, “a form of hostile environment harassment, refers to verbal behavior that is hostile or degrading toward individuals in the workplace, such as sexual or sexist jokes.” In this scenario, participants were asked to send either sexuality-related articles or articles with no sexual content to a female.

The conclusions were the same as in the first study: men engaged in harassing behavior when they feared being perceived as incompetent.

The third study was similar to the first but included female participants, who were found less likely to sexually harass subordinates when in a position of power than men. Here, too, the perception of incompetence indicated a higher likelihood in men to engage in sexually harassing behavior.

In sum, note the authors:

Results demonstrated that concerns about being perceived as incompetent (i.e., Fear of Negative Evaluation scores) positively predicted men’s sexual harassment of female subordinates. Among women, Fear of Negative Evaluation scores were unrelated to sexual harassment of male subordinates. Further, this relationship held controlling for Narcissism, Self-Esteem, and Generalized Self-Efficacy scores, suggesting that the fear that others would see oneself as incompetent was a better predictor of sexual harassment than one’s self-perceived incompetence

The authors also emphasize the timeliness of their research.

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