Power Distance in the Workplace: a Trigger or Buffer for Sexual Harassment?

Areeshya Thevamanohar is a Politics student with a passion for challenging great injustices through writing. Growing up in multicultural Malaysia, and then moving to London, she hopes to keep exploring the many conflicting views that have shaped how gender is treated in all walks of life.

[Featured Image: Three small people dressed in business attire pushing against one large fist against a hot pink background.]

The hours during my first internship were nine in the morning to six in the evening. That’s nine hours of the day spent in the same space with the same people. I was blessed to have worked with individuals who did not see me as just an intern to bully. However, many have had such an experience both interning and in the working world. I have realised how severely it could influence someone’s mental health if they’re encountering negative experiences at work. 

Negative experience is a broad term. The one I’d like to focus on is sexual harassment. And this too can be experienced by anyone regardless of gender, usually by their superiors. It is a revolting abuse of power. And that’s where power distance comes into the discussion. 

Power distance is the extent to which the less powerful members of institutions and organisations expect and accept that power is distributed unequally (Hofstede 1997). We use it to measure the distance between two individuals within a societal culture and organisation. An example would be the power distance between an employer and an employee. 

The setting we’ll look at will be the workplace. I think it’s vital as many of us will be interning or soon entering the working world. Workplace culture is something we need to be aware of, perhaps when looking at company profiles and when we are in those workplace settings. We often think that since we’re young, we can tough it out for the future of our careers. But the damage that can be done to your personal growth and identity as an individual, especially with sexual harassment incidents, are likely to outweigh the career benefits in the long run.

Khatri (2009) researched the power distance dimension and found that unethical behaviour is more likely to occur in high power distance settings. This is because superiors do not have to justify their decisions to members who are lower in a hierarchy. It also means that they are less likely to be exposed. People existing within that power structure are also less likely to subject to challenge as they deem such order as acceptable and even desirable at times. He quotes Takyi-Asiedu’s (1993) study to show that in high power distance organisations, scandals tend to be covered up and superiors remain in power due to the subordinates’ loyalty. 

An Economist article which interviewed Jamie Prenkert; a professor of business law, discussed what a culture of silence does within an organisation. Similar to what Khatri found in his research, Prenkert notes that victims usually do a cost-benefit analysis before deciding to come forward. Organisations that practice high power distances tend to allow for a culture of silence to cultivate. 

On the employer’s part, this should be taken more seriously.  The #MeToo movement in the United States has seen the downfall of prominent figures and companies as a result of whistleblowing on attempted cover-ups (either by bystanders, victims or both). However, it is worth noting that the #MeToo; while it has affected institutions elsewhere; did not reach the scale as it did in the United States. One has to wonder why that is. Has the culture of silence been embedded so deeply in some societies for so long? To the extent that individuals are that fearful or do not see the point in coming forward at all? 

International Hofstede Power Distance Index.

Hofstede Insights has studied power distance in a range of countries.  I have averaged the results on a continent basis to present a generalised view of what power distance looks like in our current world. 

The Power Distance Index works on a scale of 100 points, with countries scoring lower numbers having smaller power distance gaps and vice versa. It looks at both culture within society and organisations and institutions of the studied country. Again, what is practiced within the societal culture is often similar to what is practiced in the workplace. The aim of the article is not to criticise countries who have wider power distance gaps. However, as mentioned earlier, research has shown that in a workplace setting; countries with a high-power distance lead to more unethical behaviour occurring (Khatri 2009). Anomalies do skew my results here, so to find out where your country stands specifically, visit https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison.  

Hofstede Insights finds that some countries practice a hierarchical society where people accept a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place without further justification. This usually follows into the workplace, and here, inequalities are apparent. Subordinates do expect to be instructed on what to do. A few countries that matched this description were Malaysia (100 points), Venezuela (81 points) and Mozambique (85 points). All are practicing a similar culture according to the study.

On the other end of the spectrum are countries that score a much lower number. Such countries practice more egalitarian practices. In the workplace, it means that organisations tend to only establish a hierarchy for convenience, but superiors should always be accessible. There is more reliance on employees and teams for their expertise and information is shared frequently in a manner that is informal, direct and participative. Countries such as Austria (11 points), Denmark (14 points) and New Zealand (22 points) score here. And of course, countries falling in the middle such as the United Kingdom (35 points) and the United States (40 points).

The research by Hofstede Insights shows a relationship between societal culture and workplace culture. The #MeToo movement has shed light on the importance of addressing sexual harassment which is fantastic and crucial to moving forward.  However, while many companies may begin to implement stricter policies around harassment in the workplace, it is a whole different story from adequately executing it. Many companies often do the bare minimum. I believe that such policies can only be correctly enforced when societal culture aligns with stated policies. 

Again, power distance covers a wide array of inequalities; gender and sexual harassment in the workplace, in particular, is just one aspect. For instance, a consensus within a society could be that men are superior to women; and both men and women accept and comply with that belief. Then an organisation within that society; despite having strict policies against sexual harassment, may be ineffective if there is a general belief that says otherwise. Men will continue to feel justified to harass, and women may think it is okay because they are more superior. It is an extreme example, but one that hopefully illustrates the point I’m making. 

Regardless of gender, we need to be aware of the power dynamics at play, especially at work. Observe the culture practiced in your organisation and what options you have to report incidents. I do remain optimistic about the future; with tools like social media at play, so much awareness is being raised. The importance of workplace etiquette is gaining traction. 

If you are part of a society that practices high power distance, or, are in an organisation that does the same, think about what should change, and how to create that change. It’s different on a case by case basis, and there usually isn’t a one size fits all solution. So, your observations could be deemed as hugely important! And in situations that are the opposite, what’s working well? What needs to be improved? There is always room for progress. We shall continue to work towards a universal scenario where anyone can go to work; secure in the knowledge that they are protected. 

Works cited: 

N. Khatri, (2009) Consequences of Power Distance Orientation in Organisations [Accessed on 1st November 2019 https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/097226290901300101

Hofstede Insights Country Comparison [Accessed on 1st November 2019 https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/

T. Williams, Workplace sexual harassment and the culture of silence [Accessed on 1st November 2019 https://execed.economist.com/blog/industry-trends/workplace-sexual-harassment-and-culture-silence

Image source: Wall Street Journal (https://www.wsj.com/articles/after-metoo-those-who-report-harassment-still-risk-retaliation-11544643939)

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