NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Who is most likely to flirt – or potentially harass – their co-workers in order to move up? New research on sexual behavior in the workplace points to men in low-power positions.
Men in high-ranking positions and women in lesser job roles are often the focus of both stereotypes and research about gender and sexuality in the office. However, newly published findings challenge the notion that women are the ones who use sexual appeal to get ahead at work.
Instead, deliberately sexual behavior and potentially unwanted innuendo comes from men who are insecure about their role at work, researchers at the University of California-Berkeley say. Men in such “low-power positions” are more likely to use “unwanted social behavior” and describe themselves as “charming flirts” in their place of work.
The study finds men in lower roles are more likely to rationalize being “big flirts” in their office as they seek to portray a more powerful image. The largely heterosexual group of male participants were also more likely to flirt with their bosses than women in subordinate roles.
Does flirting give people more power?
While portions of both women and men in the study used similar strategic appeals to their physical or sexual nature, it’s only males who “turn up the harassment with co-workers” once they perceive themselves as having too little power.
“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 Laura Kray, who studies gender roles through her role at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business, in a university release. “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.”
The study authors contend that men resort to workplace flirtation because they are driven by “a desire for more power-not holding power,” which corrupts their intentions with co-workers. By mixing “social sexual” answers with tamer control questions, male study participants were most likely to select options which appear more “dominant, powerful, in control.” These characteristics were most common among men who self-identified as “flirts” and who held seemingly fragile or inflated views of their position in the workplace.
‘Strategic flirting’ a sign of ‘modern sexism’?
Among the 200 undergraduate study participants, males were much more likely to choose sexual questions when they performed jobs which were subordinate to a woman. Men in lower-power roles were also more likely than women in the same roles to utilize “strategic flirting as a way to compensate for their low-power position,” the researchers say.
A separate recent study on “modern sexism” found that it’s young men under age 30 – and not older, more established men – who are more likely to oppose recent advances in women’s rights. Young men were most likely to say feminism has hurt their careers and to believe in the “zero-sum game” idea that women gaining something always lead to men losing something.
The study team included Haas School of Business professor Laura Kray and behavioral researchers Jessica A. Kennedy of Vanderbilt University and Michael Rosenblum of New York University.
The research is published in the journal Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes.