Skip to Main Content

Sexual harassment and power dynamics

When it comes to sexual harassment in the workplace, it’s fairly natural for people to assume that it’s about sex or attraction. It might be about an unrequited romantic attraction, for instance. A coworker repeatedly makes comments about someone or asks them out because they want to have a relationship with that person.

And, certainly, there are likely cases where this does happen. But it is not the main reason. It often comes down to power dynamics more than attraction.

Setting up a power structure

For example, in some situations, one employee may be trying to emphasize the power that they have over the other. This could be true if one person is a supervisor and the other person works under them. As one report put it: “It’s rarely just about sex. It’s about the objectification of a victim, emphasizing their role as a helpless subordinate.”

After all, in the corporate world, many people are simply looking to increase their own standing in the business at every chance that they get. If they believe that they can emphasize how they have power over a subordinate, they feel as if that gives them more general power in the office or helps them climb the corporate ladder.

The use of existing power

Another way that power plays a role is simply that one person may be using their position to get what they or want from the other. They’re not necessarily emphasizing their power, but trying to exercise it.

A good example of this is a rather cliché situation where a CEO coerces a secretary into a relationship at work. The CEO knows that the secretary may be afraid to speak up for fear of being fired. This also could be a quid pro quo situation. For instance, the CEO could promise the secretary a raise or a promotion in exchange for sexual favors.

What options do employees have?

You can see how power plays a role in the situation and how complicated things can get. But employees should never be treated like this on the job. You do have rights, and you need to know what legal steps to take if this happens to you.