The headlines may feature the names of powerful businessmen and stars who’ve been accused of sexual harassment, but employers should remember the perpetrator may not always be a man. Powerful women can be harassers, too. And there is the key: harassment is more about power than gender.
Abigail Saguy, a Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at UCLA who has studied sexual harassment for decades, argues that one of the most fundamental components of harassment is not necessarily gender, but the power dynamic created by managerial responsibilities and authority. These managerial positions have historically been held by more men than women, thus providing for a greater likelihood that the aggressor be male. But this situation is rapidly changing.
Today, women comprise nearly 25 percent of executive and senior-level officials and managers in S&P 500 companies. In addition, according to the Annual State of Women-Owned Businesses Report from American Express, as of January 2017, there were an estimated 11.6 million women-owned businesses that employ nearly 9 million people. Businesses owned by women have a growth rate that is more than 2.5 times the national average.
With the increase in women holding managerial positions, claims of harassment by women may rise in conjunction with the changing workplace.
We are already seeing such claims. For example, last year, the female founder and former CEO of Thinx, Inc., Miki Agrawal, was accused of touching other employees’ breasts, talking about her own sexual exploits with employees, changing her clothes in front of employees, and conducting video conferences from her bedroom. While the suit was settled privately, Agrawal stepped down as CEO.
A second example involved Andrea Ramsey, the first high-profile woman accused in the wake of the #metoo movement. In December 2017, Ramsey dropped out of the race for a Kansas Congressional seat after reports surfaced that in 2005 she had been accused of making inappropriate sexual comments and innuendos to a human resources manager and retaliating against him when he rejected her advances. Ramsey vehemently denied the allegations, saying he was a disgruntled vindictive employee who was upset about having been let go. The EEOC investigated and dismissed the charge in 2005, indicating the information obtained during the investigation did not support a finding that violation of the law had occurred. Despite the EEOC’s findings in Ramsey’s favor, and Ramsey’s vehement denial of the allegations, the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee withdrew its support for her campaign.
These instances highlight the importance of recognizing that either sex can be accused of harassment. Companies should ensure that their policies and enforcement mechanisms are gender-neutral. Managers should be trained to make all employees feel comfortable coming forward with concerns, and investigators should conduct prompt and impartial investigations.