Study Finds That Men in Subordinate Positions in the Workplace Are the Most Likely to Flirt for Personal Gain

A new study led by Laura J. Kray, who holds the Ned and Carol Spieker Chair in Leadership at the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley, finds men are more likely than women to engage in social sexual behavior at work for personal gain, and it’s most often men in lower-power positions who initiate it.

The paper challenges the perception that men in powerful positions are the most prone to “social sexual behavior” that can cross into outright harassment. The new research finds 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.

“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 aphrodisiac that makes people take advantage of others sexually,” says Professor Kray. “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.”

Professor Kray added that “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.”

Professor Kray is a graduate of the University of Michigan, where she majored in organizational studies. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Washington.

The full study, “Who Do They Think They Are?: A Social-Cognitive Account of Gender Differences in Social Sexual Identity and Behavior at Work,” was published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes. It may be accessed here.

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