The 3 Things That Make Organizations More Prone to Sexual Harassment

Nothing's foolproof, but there are research-proven changes companies could make.

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In the weeks since Roy Price resigned as the head of Amazon Studios amid sexual-harassment allegations, Amazon’s CEO Jeff Bezos has made no public comments on the matter.* Bezos’ silence continues a pattern of inaction by the company.

Allegations were first made against Price in July of 2015. After an investigation, the only punishment meted out, according to a New York Times account attributed to an Amazon employee briefed on the matter, was that Price was told to watch his drinking at work functions. Despite an investigation and despite The Hollywood Reporter’s inquiry about the incident last spring, nothing more was done until recent news articles created a PR problem for the company. (Amazon declined to speak on the record.) Amazon then, finally, did make a change: In the end, Price was put on leave last month and resigned a few days later. The delay in meaningful discipline for Price led some current and former employees to wonder if that leniency was in some way connected to the company’s lack of women in senior leadership positions—according to the tech-news site Recode, Amazon has just one woman among its 18 top executives.

They weren’t wrong. Amazon seems to be typical of the sort of organization that researchers have found to be particularly prone to sexual harassment and abuse: male dominated, super hierarchical, and forgiving when it comes to bad behavior.

To start with, having more women employees, particularly in leadership roles, can reduce the incidence of harassment. Why? It’s not that women are somehow themselves preventing the behavior—in fact women too can be perpetrators—but that male-dominated organizations are more likely to have cultures characterized by aggressive and competitive behaviors and so-called locker-room culture. In addition, compared with women, men tend to have more trouble recognizing when women are being treated in an unfair or sexist way. This sets the stage for harassment: In such contexts, norms of professionalism can give way to boorish interactions in which women are treated as sexualized pawns rather than as valued and competent work colleagues. And if men are less likely to label what their male colleagues are doing as inappropriate, it can make matters worse.

What’s more is that in these hypermasculine settings, when women rise up the ranks, men can feel that their dominance is being threatened. In fact, the most common form of harassment is not the solicitation of sex, but rather what’s called gender harassment—sexist comments, obscene gestures, publicly displayed pornography—which serve as tools for putting women “in their place.” Women who violate feminine ideals by having a “man’s job” or behaving in “masculine” ways such as expressing strong opinions, being assertive, and having supervisory roles are more likely to experience such harassment.

Another general principle is that hierarchy seems to increase the odds of harassment occurring. Of course, most organizations are hierarchical to some extent, but what matters is the degree of the power imbalances among different people in the system. Studies have found that having power enables people to do as they please, often at the expense of taking other people’s perspectives into consideration. Research has also shown that in the minds of men with a high proclivity to harass, power and sex are closely linked. Moreover, their power shields them from scrutiny, criticism, and punishment. As a result, having power over others is often corruptive, in that it can lead people to behave badly, lack empathy, and even to engage in socially inappropriate or sexualized behavior. In contrast, powerlessness is associated with fear and embarrassment and a heightened sensitivity to threat. In contexts with greater hierarchy, higher-ups may be more inclined to behave badly, while at the same time subordinates are less able to push back.

A type of hierarchical situation that is rife for sexual harassment is one in which powerful individuals have a lot of discretion and a singular capacity to make or break an underling’s career. The Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, who has been accused of sexual assault and harassment, was for decades able to launch an unknown actress into stardom. (Holly Baird, a spokesperson for Weinstein, told The Atlantic that Weinstein “unequivocally denie[s]” any allegations of nonconsensual sex.) The venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck, who has been accused of unwanted and inappropriate advances, was in a position to provide badly needed funding to women entrepreneurs. (Caldbeck has denied the allegations and threatened to sue his accusers. He has also apologized and is now seeking to educate young men about “bro” culture. He declined to speak on the record for this article.) The U.C. Berkeley astronomy professor Geoff Marcy, who has been accused of behaving in an inappropriate and sexualized manner with students, had the power to write letters of recommendation to help women undergraduates get into graduate school. (Marcy disputes these accusations. A lawyer representing him referred The Atlantic to Marcy’s earlier public statements about the matter.) The story often follows similar lines: A harasser’s high status provides cover for their actions because victims and bystanders are leery of what will happen to them if they speak up. If the perpetrator holds the keys to your future, it can be hard to come forward or fight back. Time and again, harassers get away with it because there is a low probability of both discovery and punishment.

At its core, sexual harassment is about unequal power relations between men and women at work, at school, and in society at large. Vulnerability is a hallmark of both who gets targeted and why victims keep silent. The waitress earning minimum wage who is expected to put up with sexist comments from customers; the woman farmworker who is sexually assaulted in the field and then threatened into silence by her employer; the intern who must fend off repeated advances from a senior leader to keep her position. It is the most vulnerable women among us, those with less education, who hold low-paid service jobs or lower-level administrative jobs, who are racial and ethnic minorities, or who have been victimized before, who are harassed more frequently. And few victims ever come forward because of legitimate concerns that retribution could put them out of a job.

If power imbalances leave those at the bottom of the hierarchy vulnerable, more needs to be done to even out the scales. Strong HR departments that are empowered to protect employees and rewarded when they do, hotlines that are staffed (not recordings), and anonymous reporting mechanisms can do a lot to give voice to people who often have none.

The third factor, and the single biggest predictor of sexual harassment on the job, is how permissive an organization is of this conduct. Permissive organizations are ones in which employees feel it is risky to report sexual harassment, think that their complaints won’t be taken seriously, and believe that perpetrators will face few to no consequences. This may seem circular, and in a way it is—harassment begets more harassment—but it also implies an important lesson: Cracking down on harassers, severely and transparently, discourages the behavior across an organization.

Quintessential examples of these kinds of permissive environments are companies like Uber and Fox News. At Uber, Susan Fowler said her repeated complaints to HR about harassment and exclusion went nowhere. Instead she was told that no actions would be taken against the perpetrator because he was a top performer. At Fox News, Bill O’Reilly was given another four-year, $25 million-a-year contract even after he settled a harassment case for $32 million and despite 21st Century Fox knowing about these allegations against him (though not about the amount of the settlement). At each company, these weren’t isolated incidents of unprofessional behavior. Rather, they reflected a larger problem. Uber ended up firing 20 people for harassment, bullying, and discrimination after an investigation of its workplace culture was conducted in the wake of Fowler’s blog post. And, in addition to O’Reilly, former Fox News CEO Roger Ailes and the Fox News host Eric Bolling have both left Fox News amid allegations of sexual harassment. (A spokesperson for 21st Century Fox said the company has taken “concerted action to transform Fox News,” including “increasing the channels through which employees can report harassment or discrimination.”)

What determines whether or not a company is tolerant of sexual harassment? In a word, leadership. Do managers work to prevent harassment by talking about company policies and modeling appropriate ways of treating and interacting with coworkers?  Do they ensure that claims of harassment are promptly investigated and that punishments are handed out—even when the perpetrator is a top performer or a higher-up? When leaders take sexual harassment seriously, it’s less likely to occur. The odds of it happening go up when company leaders condone misconduct by ignoring it, discouraging people from coming forward, failing to act, or engaging in harassing behaviors themselves.

Sexual harassment leads to many negative outcomes. Targets of harassment can have reduced mental and physical health, lower job satisfaction, and greater workplace withdrawal. They suffer real costs to their careers. When women have to quit to get away from threatening situations, they often wind up in lower-paying jobs with worse long-term professional prospects. There are organizational consequences as well, all of which hit the bottom line. Not only are the costs of litigation high, but in environments that are more hostile to women there can be more team conflict and reduced workgroup productivity.

As bad as all of this is, there is also the implication that companies can do a lot to address and prevent sexual harassment. Strong policies—with real teeth—and training are essential. In both, harassment should be clearly defined, protocols established for what employees should do when they see it happening, disciplinary consequences should be clear, confidentiality for the victim should be maintained, and retribution against him or her prohibited.

Gender equity efforts are also central. If male-dominated structures uphold a system of sexual harassment, such structures need to be changed, and women need to be promoted to upper levels. Even so, more women in management won’t alone eliminate sexual harassment, and plenty of organization with women in top leadership positions still have problems. But greater numbers of women can create more equity in the power men and women hold inside companies. More women can also do a lot to tamp down hypermasculine cultures that degrade and demean women. It appears Amazon Studios is cleaning house and moving in this direction, putting women executives into key leadership positions. This leadership shake-up came just weeks after Roy Price and a few of his male colleagues suddenly departed from the company and as Amazon Studios began an investigation into allegations that the Transparent star Jeffrey Tambor harassed a former assistant. (In a statement provided to Deadline, Tambor described the allegation as “baseless.” He also denied a separate allegation of harassment, and indicated he plans to leave the show.)

Men play an important role in counteracting sexism as well. Research shows that people take men’s complaints about sexism more seriously than they take women’s, perhaps because men are not seen as directly benefiting from doing so (and, perhaps, because people implicitly trust men more on these matters than they trust women, even though the vast majority of perpetrators are men and the vast majority of victims are women).

Ultimately, all of this comes down to whether senior leadership takes this issue seriously or not. A study from the military found that when women felt that their leaders were working to combat sexual harassment and modeled respectful behavior they reported experiencing less harassment and, if they filed a complaint, were more satisfied with what happened. Thus, when leaders take visible, consistent, and firm stands that sexual harassment won’t be tolerated, it creates safer and more inclusive environments. When leaders remain mum, as Jeff Bezos has, it can do the opposite.

*This article originally reported that Jeff Bezos did not talk about the Price resignation on Amazon's recent earnings call. While other Amazon executives who participated did not discuss the matter, Bezos himself was not on the call. We regret the error.