“Why does he sexually harass me at work?”

Good question.

Seems that the more complaints of sexual harassment that are made, the more surface. Don’t get me wrong, anti-harassment training is, of course, a must – and is now required in some places such as NYS and NYC.

But why does it happen in the first place?

Here’s a couple of things that I have recently read that may help to explain it.

Corey Robin wrote in “The Reactionary Mind,” at page 4:

“Despite the very real differences between them, workers in a factory are like secretaries in an office, peasants on a manor, slaves on a plantation – even wives in a marriage – in that they live and labor in conditions of unequal power. They submit and obey, heeding the demands of their managers and masters, husbands and lords.”

Ah ha. Unequal power.

Unspoken is the ineluctable answer — for sexual harassment to abate, women must achieve a greater level of power, equal if not more than men. Makes sense.

Then there is a more superficial answer, which does not rattle the status quo – men must be nicer to women and insure that the workplace is nicer.

Be nice!

Psychologists in a new study reported in Harvard Business Review, focus on three words to explain sexual harassment: “masculinity contest culture,” which “endorses winner-take-all competition, where winners demonstrate stereotypically masculine traits such as emotional toughness, physical stamina, and ruthlessness.”

Women are just not tough enough for this masculine business world and therefore must pay the price.

The writer of the cited post says that

“Our upbringings as men may have something to do with the issue. Boys learn to identify early in their development that there are certain behaviors and social norms associated with what makes them a ‘man.’ We’re told to ‘man up’ and ‘don’t be a sissy’ to conform to cultural beliefs and other people’s expectations about what it means to be a man. In turn, the research asserts, society ends up producing ‘dominant, tough, risk-taking, aggressive, rule-breaking’ men. And many of these men become leaders, producing ‘organizational dysfunction, as employees become hyper-competitive to win.’”

What does this all mean?

So much for power differential in the workplace and society – at bottom it’s all about “being a man” – you know, having been encouraged as a kid to play with toy soldiers rather than dolls.

I always thought that was it!

In this construct, women are not seen as equal in the acquisition of power and status, and so “the solution,” included in a list of recommendations, is sorta the ho hum that we know:

“Generate awareness of the masculinity contest and its role in creating organizational problems. Researchers stress that sexual harassment is falsely attributed to a “few bad apples,” when, in fact, the current culture is responsible for allowing and even rewarding the misconduct. “When organizations do not tolerate bullying and harassment, the bad apples are kept in check and good apples do not go bad,” states the report.


“Leaders must change reward systems, model new behavior and punish the misconduct previously overlooked or rewarded.”


“Become more hospitable and inclusive toward women and minorities, which the researchers assert as the groups ‘whose ideas are most often summarily ignored or dismissed in masculinity contest cultures.’”

The recommendations all involve maintaining the power status quo and just simply being better people. Forget any upheaval of the workplace and society to fundamentally change the power differential – just be nice and make sure the culture is nice!


So, what is the answer to the question “Why does he sexually harass me at work?”

Short answer: “Because he can.”

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Richard Cohen

Richard B. Cohen is a partner in the New York City office of FisherBroyles, LLP, a national law firm. Richard Cohen has litigated and arbitrated complex corporate, commercial and employment disputes for more than 35 years, and is a trusted advisor to business owners and in-house counsel both in the United States and internationally. His clients have included Fortune 100 companies, domestic and foreign commercial and investment banks, Pacific-rim corporations and real estate development companies, as well as start-up businesses throughout the United States. Email Richard at [email protected]