3 psychologists explain why men harass women in the workplace

Courtney Connley
It's an easy way to "intimidate, disempower and discourage" female coworkers.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is hardly a new phenomenon, but the deluge of disturbing allegations of sexual assault and harassment by powerful, high-profile men has prompted an increasing number of women to come forward with stories of how harassment has impacted their careers.

CNBC Make It spoke with three psychologists to break down the possible psychological motivations behind why men harass and abuse their female coworkers.


Desire to "protect occupational territory"

Shawn Burn, Ph.D., is a psychology professor at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis. She says "sometimes, sexual harassment is used to intimidate, disempower, and discourage women in traditionally male-dominated occupations."

For women in fields like the military, tech or politics, she says men often perform such inappropriate behavior in an effort to "protect their occupational territory." Often times, Burn says, the behavior goes so unchecked by leaders of an organization that it becomes a workplace norm.

Former Uber engineer Susan Fowler opened up earlier this year in a blog post about the toxic culture of workplace harassment at the company, alleging that she was sexually harassed by a male manager at Uber whose actions were knowingly brought to the attention of HR.

"Upper management told me that he 'was a high performer' (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and they wouldn't feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part," wrote Fowler.

While upper management also told Fowler that her complaint was the manager's "first offense," she later found out from other female engineers that they too had complained about the male colleague's inappropriate behavior before her.

"The situation was escalated as far up the chain as it could be escalated, and still nothing was done," she added.

With a work culture that continuously ignores such behavior, Burn says women often face fear of speaking out due to possible repercussions.

"Women have little recourse but to keep silent out of fears of job loss or impairing their careers," she says.


Approval of sexual objectification

Burn says many men are surrounded by a culture that reduces women to sexualized objects, which normalizes female colleague in a less than professional manner.

Women in certain jobs, Burn argues, particularly those in which physical appearance plays a role, "sometimes face increased levels of sexual harassment because their jobs implicitly condone their sexual objectification. Some men take this as permission to process and react to these women not as people, but as fantasy sex objects without personal sexual boundaries."

Ashley Judd spoke with the New York Times piece about a time when Harvey Weinstein invited her to a breakfast meeting in Beverly Hills when she was filming the 1997 film "Kiss the Girls." When she arrived at the hotel she learned that the meeting would be held in Weinstein's suite.

During that time, she says he made multiple attempts to get close to her by asking if she wanted a massage. When she refused, he asked if he could give her a shoulder rub. When she said no to that, he then directed her towards his closet and asked her to pick out his clothes for the day. Afterwards, he steered her towards the bathroom and asked her to watch him take a shower.

"I said no, a lot of ways, a lot of times, and he always came back at me with some new ask," said Judd.

In recent weeks more than 60 allegations of harassment have been leveled against Weinstein.

Regardless of industry, Burn says it's important for men to know that no female ever signs up to be sexually harassed or assaulted. There should also be no career field that makes it acceptable for such behavior to take place without immediate consequences.


Perceived invincibility

"There are intense issues of entitlement and power and control that have gone unchecked that lead to situations where men feel it's perfectly fine to engage in these kind of behaviors," says clinical psychologist David Ley.

According to Burn, this behavior is closely linked to abuse of power.

"Not all people handle power and money with grace," she says. "Some use their power to exploit and maltreat others, knowing they can get away with it, and some getting off on it."

She says Weinstein is a prime example of this. As a power player in Hollywood, Weinstein knew that any inappropriate actions conducted by him would likely go unchecked.

"Weinstein was a gatekeeper who could give actresses a career that would sustain their lives and the livelihood of their families," actress Britt Marling wrote in a personal essay for The Atlantic. "He could also give them fame, which is one of few ways for women to gain some semblance of power and voice inside a patriarchal world."


Exhibitionistic disorder

According to Psychology Today, exhibitionistic disorder involves exposing one's genitals or sexual organs to a non-consenting person. While this disorder is linked to very specific behavior, it mirrors the allegations that many women have recently brought to light.

Earlier this month, the New York Times reported several women accusing comedian Louis C.K. of masturbating in front of them.

In the article, comedy duo Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov recalled an encounter with the comedian in 2002, when he invited them to his hotel room one night after a performance.

"He proceeded to take all of his clothes off, and get completely naked, and started masturbating," they said.

Clinical psychologist Ben Michaelis says that while he doesn't know Louis C.K. personally or treat him, it's likely that his behavior developed over time.

"The pattern of behavior may have always been something that was somewhat appealing to him, but then as he's grown in power and status he has had more opportunities," says Michaelis.

To treat this behavior, Psychology Today suggest individuals enroll in cognitive behavioral therapy to identify the triggers that cause these urges and to find healthy ways to manage them. Psychotherapy and medication that inhibits sexual hormones may also be recommended.

"At any level, these are crimes," added Michaelis. Regardless of the degree of sexual harassment or assault, Michaelis says such behavior in the workplace should be treated as a legal matter.

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