Differential-of-Power: Understanding Sexual Harassment

Boss touching his secretaryI want a world that is fair for women. I want a world where women are paid as much as men for doing the same work. As the father of two daughters, as a husband, as a family man, as a lifelong educator – I want a world where women have the same opportunities as men. Likewise, I want a world where my wife and daughters can work free from sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment has many forms. It ranges from unwanted sexual advancements, to lewd conversation or jokes, to overt pressure or coercion. It is not restricted to male-to-female harassment. Sexual harassment also occurs between persons of the same gender, as well as female-to-male (#METOO).

Within an organizational workplace, sexual harassment can be addressed with help from a supervisor or human resource officer. However, when unwanted sexual advances come from one’s supervisor or another senior official, or when it occurs in business outside of a formal organizational structure, remedies are more difficult. This difficulty is due to the difference-of-power or control between the parties. Therefore, a key concept to understand when discussing sexual harassment is differential-of-power.

Some positions of power are easily understood while others are a bit more nuanced. Nonetheless, sexual harassment exists when one person uses a position of power to coerce another person to engage in a sexual manner. Power can be expressed in a variety of ways, but in the differential-of-power scenario it exists when one person possesses the power to influence, either positively or negatively, another’s career, grade, public image, etc.

Simply stated, when one has the power to impact the life of another, either negatively or positively, the notion of a consensual relationship is diminished. Appropriate consent is inversely correlated with the differential-of-power; when the differential-of-power is greater, the ability for a consensual relationship is lesser.

Just as a person can legally be incapable of giving consent based on age, intoxication level, duress, or mental capacity, the ability to consent in a sexual relationship is lessened relative to the differential-of-power between the parties. Furthermore, the ability for consent may be negated entirely when one feels that they can be “made or broken” by the person from whom sexual advances are coming.

It is my belief that the sexual harassment that occurs within a differential-of-power is the least understood and acknowledged form. There are many reasons for this, some of which I will discuss in a subsequent post on this topic. Nonetheless, I believe it is an issue that should be discussed, understood, and taught. As a mentor, I think that all persons who inhabit positions of power should understand and respect this dynamic and its potential for harm. As a lifelong educator, I believe strongly in teaching and discussing this unfortunate reality with our youth.

There are three guidelines that organizations should adhere to and promote in order prevent differential-of-power based sexual harassment:

  1. It is always the obligation of the one possessing the most power to avoid the relationships in which a clear differential-of-power exists, even when there is an appearance of consent.
  2. Unlike in relationships where the power is relatively equal, it is extremely difficult to interpret consent when the differential-of-power is great.
  3. The wisest default position for those in power is to steer clear of relationships with those over whom you have power.

See this additional post on the topic


  1. […] Differential-of-power sexual harassment occurs when a person is coerced to submit to unwelcome sexual conduct by someone with greater power or influence. The coercion can occur from both a positive direction, where an offer is made to help the victim, or from a negative direction where the victim is threatened with negative consequences. Examples of positive-direction coercion could be an offer to provide venture capital for a business or to offer a highly desired promotion. Examples of negative-direction coercion would be a threat of termination or a negative evaluation of job performance. […]

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