Economic Power over Women

last updated April 30, 2007

Commentators on sexual harassment have also sought to explain how hostile work environment sexual harassment factors into the subordination of women. This type of sexual harassment does not necessarily fit the power/sexual coercion paradigm introduced by Catherine MacKinnon and Kathryn Abrams. It is thought that economic considerations may fuel this type of harassment and may also play a role in harassment by a supervisor. As Vicki Schultz notes:

men's desire to exploit or dominate women sexually may not be the exclusive, or even the primary motivation for harassing women at work. Instead, a drive to maintain the most highly rewarded forms of work as domains of masculine competence underlies many, if not most, forms of sex-based harassment on the job. . . . . Contrary to many prevailing assumptions, workplace harassment is not a mere reflection of unequal gender relations that have already been created elsewhere, such as in the domestic sphere. . . . The problem . . . is, instead, that by portraying women as less than equal at work, men can secure superior jobs, resources, and influence—all of which afford men leverage over women at home and everyplace else. . . [The focus of the legal inquiry should be whether the conduct at issue has] the purpose or effect of undermining women's 'right to participate in the workplace on [an] equal footing.


From Vicki Schultz, Reconceptualizing Sexual Harassment, Yale Law Journal, Vol. 107, 1683, 1755, 1760-1761, 1800-1801 (1998).

While serving as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Radika Coomaraswamy also recognized the economic implications of sexually harassing behavior. In her 1997 report, she states, "[s]exual harassment strikes at the heart of women's economic self-sufficiency, disrupting women's earning capacity by forcing them out of the workplace or school. Women are nine times more likely than are men to leave their jobs as a result of sexual harassment." From 1997 Report of the Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women appointed by the UN Commmission on Human Rights.

L. Camille Hebert also addresses the economic factors involved in hostile work environment sexual harassment. She notes that:

[s]ome commentators have argued that sexual harassment is motivated by factors other than power imbalance by pointing to the fact that sexual harassment most often occurs among co-workers rather than between a supervisor and a subordinate. Such a contention, however, fails to recognize that forms of economic power other than supervisory power exist in the workplace. Males may be able to exert economic power over female co-workers by withholding information and training necessary to job performance. Finally, men, because of their longer job tenure (and because of their maleness), may simply have more authority with supervisors than newer female employees and thereby be able to influence the supervisor's perception of the women's job performance. Sexual harassment in the workplace may even be motivated by the frustration some men feel over the loss of economic power in the workplace. . . . Some men feel threatened, both socially and economically, by the advancement of women; some of these men react to these women with hostility. It is not surprising that this hostility would manifest itself in abusive sexual activity directed toward women. Because of both biological and social factors, men often have, or believe themselves, to have, power over women in their sexual relationships. Some men may resort to sexual harassment in the workplace to assert power in a sexual context, in which they believe they have an advantage over women, and to express frustration over their loss or lack of relative power over the women in the workplace context.


From L. Camille Hebert, The Economic Implications of Sexual Harassment for Women, Kansas Journal of Law & Public Policy, Vol. 3, 47-50 (Spring 1994).

L. Camille Hebert has further explained how economic factors play a role in the harassment of economically vulnerable women, minority women and professional women alike. In the following excerpt, she notes that the demographics of sexual harassment belie the perception that only attractive women are sexually harassed. Hebert's theory of sexual harassment is summarized as follows:

[M]any women who report sexual harassment are very dependent on their jobs, which would make them economically vulnerable to sexual harassment. Women with low seniority and those in low-status and low-skill jobs are more frequently subjected to sexual harassment than women in higher status and higher skill jobs. Women in trainee positions and women on probation are also more frequently subjected to sexual harassment. There is no reason to expect that these women are more sexually attractive or desirable than women who are not in these jobs. . . .[W]omen who are members of minority groups are more likely to be sexually harassed than nonminority women. . . Highly educated women appear to be more likely to be sexually harassed than other women; similarly, women moving into nontraditional jobs—jobs traditionally dominated by men—frequently are subjected to sexual harassment. There is no reason to believe that such women are more sexually attractive than other women. Nor, however, are these women necessarily more economically vulnerable than other women. In fact, the converse is likely to be true. . . . . This does not mean, however, that sexual harassment against these women is not the result of economic factors. In these situations, economic factors other than economic vulnerability appear to be at work, such as the desire of men to ensure continued economic dominance over women in the workplace by discouraging women from entering jobs in which they would compete with men.

From L. Camille Hebert, The Economic Implications of Sexual Harassment for Women, Kansas Journal of Law & Public Policy, Vol. 3, 41 (Spring 1994).