IMAGE: Johanna Rickne, Professor of Economics at Stockholm University. Courtesy: Magnus Bergström/Wallenbergstiftelserna

A higher status in a company does not insulate against sexual harassment, according to new research.

It may even amplify it: According to the study from the Swedish Institute for Social Research at Stockholm University (SOFI), which examined corporate conditions in three countries, women in senior supervisory positions are harrassed more than other female employees.

“The study shows that women with supervisory positions experienced between 30 and 100 per cent more sexual harassment than other women employees,” reads a statement by the study’s authors.

“This was true across the United States, Japan, and Sweden, three countries with different gender norms and levels of gender equality in the labour market. Comparing levels of leadership, exposure to harassment was greatest at lower levels of leadership, but remained substantial and similar to the level of harassment for the highest positions.”

Johanna Rickne, Professor of Economics at SOFI and an author on the study, says her team had expected higher exposure for women with less power in an organization — but says the findings are logical.

“A supervisor is exposed to new groups of potential perpetrators. She can be harassed both from her subordinates and from higher-level management within the company,” Rickne explains.

“More harassment from these two groups is also what we saw when we asked the women who had harassed them.”

For Sweden, results came from a national dataset and comprised 23,994 female respondents, who were interviewed between 1999 and 2007.

Both the U.S. and Japanese samples included responses from 1,573 women, for a total of 3,146 women.

Another barrier to advancement

“Sexual harassment means that women’s career advancement comes at a higher cost than men’s, especially in male-dominated industries and firms,” says Olle Folke, an affiliated researcher at SOFI and associate professor at Uppsala University.

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“Additional survey data from the United States and Japan showed that harassment of supervisors was not only more common than for employees but was also followed by more negative professional and social consequences. This included getting a reputation of being a ‘trouble maker’ and missing out on promotions or training.”

‘Boys’ clubs’ and retention failures

The results o echo those of a December study which found that “old boys’ clubs” — a moniker used to describe social advantages men have over women in professional settings — could be responsible for a third of the corporate gender gap. And while the paper didn’t touch on racial gaps, the theory may help explain why, in 2018, there were only 3 black CEOs in charge of Fortune 500 companies. 

A four-year, separate analysis of 541 institutional “report cards” conducted by researchers at the New York Stem Cell Foundation’s (NYSCF) Initiative on Women in Science and Engineering (IWISE) provides additional insight.

The report found that efforts to “promote and retain” women into senior scientific roles in organizations remain “largely inadequate.”

It doesn’t delve into harassment but does hint at societal discrimination and unconscious biases that can prevent women from advancing their careers.

Part of the reason the institutions involved in the survey struggle to promote women, the study suggests, is that institutions haven’t put in place policies that support the development of women’s careers.

“Across the globe and across all sectors of society, women become scarcer on higher rungs of organizational hierarchies,” reads an excerpt from Rickne’s paper.

“The paradox of power means that, because sexual harassment can potentially discourage women from seeking promotion, women’s leadership talents are not realized at the same rate as men’s. Organizations are losing women’s skill and potential for these higher positions, while women are losing the wages, status, and voice in society that such jobs can bring.”