Leah Halper, PhD Associate Director Office of Student Life Center for the Study of Student Life Columbus, OH 43210

Powerful Men More Inclined to Sexually Harass When They Fear Being Perceived As Incompetent

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:

Leah Halper, PhD Associate Director Office of Student Life Center for the Study of Student Life Columbus, OH 43210

Dr. Halper

Leah Halper, PhD
Associate Director
Office of Student Life Center for the Study of Student Life
Columbus, OH 43210

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

 Response: We started to run these studies in 2014 given mutual research interests that we shared. We knew that there was much research on sexual harassment that focused on the victim, the victim’s experience and the reporting process for sexual harassment. This work is extremely valuable. We noticed, however, that there was less research on the perpetrator and if there were personality variables related to the likelihood of sexual harassment. In our studies, we demonstrate that a personality variable (Fear of Negative Evaluation, or anxiety that others will see one as incompetent) is related to sexual harassment among men in powerful positions. Our results held up after taking into account other personality variables, such as narcissism and self-esteem. Also, we found that men who felt insecure in their power (i.e., those that were anxious that others would see them as incompetent) were more likely to engage in both quid pro quo harassment – asking for sexual favors in return for something else – and gender harassment – creating a hostile environment for women.

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report?

Response: The first take away is that not all men in power engage in sexual harassment. Some men are more or less likely to fear negative evaluation from others; the men that are more likely to fear this negative evaluation from others are more likely to sexually harass women if these men are also in a position of power.

Second, we only found these effects for men. Although research on general aggression has found that there are circumstances where both men and women in power may aggress against their subordinates, we found that men are more likely to initiate sexual aggression than women.

Third, this research has important implications for workplace culture. In our paper, we urge individuals that work in human resources to consider how to create and manage positive workplace cultures, or cultures that reduce feelings of insecurity, especially among managers. 

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work? 

Response: A great avenue for future research would be to examine how to reduce individuals‘ potential fear of negative evaluation and therefore, reduce sexual harassment. In particular, research that focuses on how to improve organizational culture (i.e., whether by improving feedback processes and team relations or by reducing behaviors that lead to anxiety and insecurity like gossip or abusive supervision) would be most welcome.

MedicalResearch.com: Is there anything else you would like to add?

Response: We conducted these studies with both men and women participants. Additionally, we had both college student and adult volunteer participants in our samples. Our measures included both self-reported questionnaires (e.g., participants indicated how likely they would be to engage in quid pro quo harassment given different scenarios). We also measured actual behavior. In one of our studies, participants were given the opportunity to send articles to a woman in another room (who was not real), who was responsible for memorizing the content of the articles for a future quiz. Some of these articles were on neutral topics, but some of these articles were sexuality-related with titles that were considered to be sexually harassing to women reading them. 


Leah R. Halper et al, Feeling Powerful but Incompetent: Fear of Negative Evaluation Predicts Men’s Sexual Harassment of Subordinates, Sex Roles (2018). DOI: 10.1007/s11199-018-0938-0

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Last Updated on July 11, 2018 by Marie Benz MD FAAD