The stereotype of the female secretary who hikes up her skirt to get a promotion is as pervasive as the powerful male boss who makes passes at his underlings.
But a new study upends both tropes with evidence that it’s actually men in subordinate positions who are most likely to flirt, use sexual innuendo, and even harass female bosses as a way to demonstrate their masculinity and power for personal gain at work.
The new paper, co-authored by Haas School of Business professor Laura Kray and published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, challenges the perception that men in powerful positions are the most prone to “social sexual behavior” that can cross into outright harassment. Co-authored by Jessica A. Kennedy of Vanderbilt University and Michael Rosenblum of New York University, the study offers a new perspective on workplace power dynamics.
“Most of the literature in this field focuses on men in power. But through a number of studies, we’ve debunked the myth that social sexual behavior is something that only high-power men do—that somehow power is this aphoidesiac that makes people take advantage of others sexually,” said Kray, a psychologist who studies gender roles. “In fact, we found that it’s more often men who are insecure about their role at work who use unwanted social sexual behavior to look more masculine and powerful, even when they know it’s offensive to women.”
In a series of online and laboratory experiments, the researchers examined the relationship between social sexual identity—or how people define their own sex appeal—and how it can drive an increase in workplace social sexual behavior that includes flirting, sexual innuendo, and harassment. Not only are men more likely than women to engage in such behavior for personal gain, the researchers concluded, but it’s most often men in lower-power positions who describe themselves as “charming flirts” with “sex appeal” who initiate social sexual behavior to appear more powerful.
Stereotypes about flirting
Prior research on social power has speculated that women are especially likely to engage in social sexual behavior when they are in subordinate positions. Kray said this idea dates back to old stereotypes about women, “for example, the secretary in the office who is low-power might hike up her skirt and flirt with her boss so that she gets better treatment,” said Kray. One research paper argued that it’s low-power women who flirt strategically at work, because they stand the most to gain. That previous research spurred Kray and her team, both former Berkeley Haas PhD students, “to put this to an empirical test” in a series of six studies.
Their experiments showed that when people are asked to define themselves, a strong social sexual identity can serve as a predictor of how they behave at work. That self-perception as a flirt is “important for understanding what potential harassers think they are doing and how they come across to themselves, which sheds light on how they justify their problematic behavior to themselves,” the researchers wrote.
The researchers also examined how men and women differ in their use of strategic flirtation. They found that men—but not women—turn up the harassment with coworkers, including bosses, when they perceive that they have little power and want to portray a more powerful image. “In other words, it’s a desire for more power—not holding power—that corrupts,” said Kennedy, PhD 12, an associate professor of management at Vanderbilt. They then rationalize the behavior, saying it’s a result of their being “big flirts.”
In one of the experiments, participants had the chance to ask a task partner of the opposite gender sexually inappropriate questions during an online get-acquainted meeting. One example was a choice between asking whether their partner had ever had a workplace conflict (a control question) versus whether they ever had a workplace relationship (a social sexual question). The researchers measured how many times participants selected social sexual questions, and found that the men initiated more social sexual behavior than women—but only when they sought to self-enhance (e.g., appear dominant, powerful, in control). This gender difference was connected to how strongly these men had self-identified as flirts.
The researchers also recruited more than 200 undergraduate students for a study about how social sexual identity impacts teamwork. Participants were told their partner was in an adjacent study room and that, before meeting in person to work on tasks, they would exchange personal information (gender, life goals, personality traits, attractiveness), through handwritten profiles. They also completed bogus leadership assessments and wrote an open-ended essay describing past leadership experiences before receiving their partner’s profile.
The students were told that based on their responses, they would be assigned to the role of boss or subordinate, and that they would work with their partner on a series of tasks “determined by the boss.”
In reality, the participants were assigned randomly, and were matched with a partner of the opposite sex (who they would never meet in person, so as not to give anyone the opportunity to harass). Participants were then asked to choose from the group of social sexual questions—used in the previous study—that they wanted to ask when they met their partner. The researchers found that male students who were told they would be subordinate to a female boss on the team chose social sexual questions more often than the male bosses, the female bosses, and the female subordinates.
These results were quite surprising, Kray said, as they puncture the stereotype that low-power women are most prone to use strategic flirting as a way to compensate for their low-power position.
In another lab experiment, again conducted with undergraduate students, the researchers explored power dynamics. Participants read a hypothetical scenario between 26-year-old David and his new boss, Vanessa, 27. When they first met for coffee, David asked Vanessa to describe a great team. Vanessa said “great teammates are those who are passionate, cooperative, and willing to work hard. Passion is really important.”
David responded in two ways: “Passion? I can definitely offer you passion…Have you ever worked with someone you wanted to date? I am curious who you find attractive.” and “Hard work? I can definitely offer you a strong work ethic…Have you ever worked with someone you thought was a star? I am curious who you find it easy to work with.”
Questioned on both interactions, the students found David’s first answer “flirtatious, masculine, and powerful,” when compared to the second. “We found support for the idea that low-power men’s initiation of (social sexual behavior) towards high-power women may function to influence social perceptions of power,” the researchers wrote, also noting that David’s social sexual behavior worked in the moment to shrink the power gap between himself and Vanessa.
Implications for workplace training
This new research isn’t about whether it’s good or bad to flirt, notes Kray, who is faculty director of the Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership and has previously studied the effects of women’s use of flirtation as a way to show power during negotiations. The study also does not imply that people in powerful positions are unlikely to be sexual harassers, she cautioned. In fact, harassment by a superior is particularly pernicious because it can involve a quid pro quo (e.g., telling someone that if they agree to a date they’ll get a promotion or other perk). And past research has shown that the most common type of workplace harassment happens between colleagues of relatively equal power, Kray said. “Harassment can come from all angles of the corporate hierarchy; however, our research finds that the only direction that exhibits a gender difference is among subordinates directing social sexual behavior towards bosses, where we see men engaging in this behavior more than women.”
Rather, the new paper concludes that being a flirt—or seeing oneself as a flirt—is predictive of a whole class of behaviors. “Some of the behaviors fall on the relatively benign end of the scale, and some are really quite offensive and most people would recognize as harassment.”
Interestingly, the researchers also uncovered a condition that eliminates these damaging gender differences: A desire to connect with others—known as “self-transcendence motives”—leads men and women to act identically.
To that end, Kray suggests that corporate sexual harassment training might include asking people to reflect on social sexual behavior that they identify as just teasing or joking—as it might instead be an early warning system about future behavior.
“People generally have positive associations with being a flirt or being charming or having sex appeal,” Kray said. “But when we take on that identity, it leads to certain behavioral patterns that reinforce the identity. And then, people use that identity as an excuse.”