Some people collect stamps, or shoes, or fossils. As a journalist, I collect annoying studies about sexism at work. And boy have I found a doozy to add to my already impressive collection.
Previous entries in this category have taken the joy out of office humor (not appreciated if you're a woman), arguing (you'll be seen as rude not passionate) and asking for a raise (you're more likely to be denied). This latest addition manages to suck the pleasure from promotions. It finds that while getting a promotion might get you more money and power, it's also likely to get you sexually harassed.
Things aren't better higher up the ladder. They're worse.
That's a pretty unexpected conclusion, but the data behind the finding is strong. Researchers at the Swedish Institute for Social Research (SOFI) surveyed more than 25,000 women in Sweden, America, and Japan about their experiences at work and role in their organizations. The research team expected being higher in the pecking order at work would protect women from harassment, but when they crunched the numbers, they found the opposite.
"The study shows that women with supervisory positions experienced between 30 and 100 per cent more sexual harassment than other women employees. This was true across the United States, Japan, and Sweden," reports SOFI. Female middle managers got the worst of it, but the problem hardly goes away as women climb higher.
You might think women managers would be better positioned to protect themselves, so why did rising in seniority correlate with more harassment? One answer is simple exposure. Middle managers deal with more people, and therefore are more likely to come across creeps.
"When you think about it, there are logical explanations: a supervisor is exposed to new groups of potential perpetrators. She can be harassed both from her subordinates and from higher-level management within the company. More harassment from these two groups is also what we saw when we asked the women who had harassed them," explained Johanna Rickne, a professor of economics at SOFI.
But that's probably not the whole explanation. A 2018 McKinsey study also saw a rise in sexual harassment as women entered more senior roles, but the consultancy suggested this was at least partly to do with the mismatch between traditional ideas of women as submissive and nurturing and the power managers wield. Some men are triggered by women who defy stereotypes, in other words. That lines up with other data showing lesbians and women in technical roles are also subject to more harassment.
Keep climbing, keep fighting
If you're not already annoyed enough, I have one more aggravating detail to throw at you. Not only do more senior women get harassed more, they also pay a higher price for it.
"Sexual harassment means that women's career advancement comes at a higher cost than men's, especially in male-dominated industries and firms," Olle Folke, another researcher involved in the study, commented. "Harassment of supervisors was not only more common than for employees, but was also followed by more negative professional and social consequences. This included getting a reputation of being a 'trouble maker' and missing out on promotions or training."
All of which is infuriating, but it shouldn't discourage women from trying to rise in their careers, of course. It should, however, probably reset their expectations that things might be less sexist the higher they climb. The biggest takeaway, however, is for companies, which despite existing in the post #MeToo era, clearly have plenty of work left to do to ensure they're getting the most out of all their talent.