- IMD Business School

Power (not Gender) Driving Sexual Harassment in the Tech Industry

A look into the causes and cures of the toxic environment for women in tech
5 min.
September 2017

The depressing news about harassment, sexism and a generally toxic work environment for women in the tech industry just keeps coming. Uber, venture capitalists, and now Google’s diversity manager, with tales of lewd remarks, dismissed achievements, and sexual advances.

As someone who works with female executives on a regular basis, I strongly suspect that these incidents are not isolated to the tech industry; women in finance and the corporate world more generally cite similar experiences. Additionally, I don’t believe that this is a specific phenomenon about how men view and react to women. Rather, my research suggests that this is a two-pronged phenomenon originating both in how people in power feel released to respond to those with less power and the social norms that have been propagated over time and have yet to be changed.

I have spent a good portion of my career as a researcher examining how power affects human behavior. My work, along with numerous others, shows that power leads people to feel more invincible, take greater risks (or not even see the inherent risks), not take others’ perspectives, and objectify them. In a study that my collaborators and I conducted with over 1,500 professionals, we found that the powerful were more likely to engage in sexual activities outside of their primary relationships, not because they were away from their primary partners more often but because they saw themselves as more attractive and desirable to the opposite sex. It was as if the powerful believed that others wanted or were “blessed by” this attention because they were such desirable creatures.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this study, however, was that we did not find any differences in gender. That is, the effects of power on infidelity were equally likely to apply to women in power as they were to men in power. The difference, however, was that in most situations, as well as in our research, most of the individuals who hold power were men.

That said, there is a wholesale, qualitative difference between infidelity and sexual harassment. The former is presumably between two consenting adults and the latter is usually one person exerting undesired advances toward another. Thus, while I do think that power plays a central role in these cases, I don’t believe that the same gender equality in which we saw infidelity represented in the powerful would apply to sexual harassment. Why? Within business and beyond, certain insidious norms about behavior of men toward women have propagated. It is those in power who set the norms of what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and as most of those in power have been and are men, these norms unfortunately have yet to change. Society deems it much less acceptable for women to make advances toward or for them to make disparaging remarks about men. Thus, most women never grew up learning that this behavior was acceptable for them to demonstrate or even how to partake in such behavior. That said, because of the corrupting nature of power, the issue of how it affects behavior and perceptions toward the less powerful – regardless of the gender of the powerholder – needs to be confronted, discussed, and monitored.

There are a couple unfortunate victims in all of this. The most obvious are the women who are the subject of these comments, advances, and discrimination. But the men who are not engaging in these behaviors are also the victims. I have talked to several male executives who say that they are hesitant to treat more junior women who they see as emerging talent the same way as they might treat similarly talented men – invite them for drinks after work or single them out to meet important clients or business contacts – for fear that their motives will be seen as less-than-pure or that they have some hidden agenda behind their behavior. Thus, the few bad apples seem to be spoiling it for the bunch.

The solution to this corrosive problem is a difficult one. As long as the gender imbalance at the top of the hierarchy remains so great it will be difficult to start balancing out the power. It will also reduce the ability of women at the top to point out to those who demonstrate some of these behaviors and attitudes how destructive and unacceptable they are without the fear of retributions in terms of job security, reputation, or financial standing.

Yes, women who experience such forms of harassment or discrimination need to speak out and report such incidents. But depending on the organizational culture and how seriously these reports are taken, speaking out can sometimes fall on deaf ears or even be punished. Uber supposedly had a hotline for reporting harassment. But even after hundreds of incidences were reported, no action was taken. And the women who did make such reports ended up with compromised professional positions within the company. Thus, reporting needs to be paired with those at the top who set the explicit norm that such behavior will not be tolerated, swiftly punish those who do show such behavior, and set a norm through one’s own behavior that women are treated and respected as equals. A nice example of setting an explicit norm comes from Reid Hoffman, the founder of Linked In, who expressed outrage over the events at Uber and asked other leaders in the industry to sign a Decency Pledge, which proposed industry-wide norms on how people of all genders interact with those who are in less-powerful positions than they are.


Research Information & Knowledge Hub for additional information on IMD publications

Discover our latest research
IMD's faculty and research teams publish articles, case studies, books and reports on a wide range of topics