Feeling Powerful but Incompetent: Fear of Negative Evaluation Predicts Men’s Sexual Harassment of Subordinates

Leah R. Halper, Kimberly Rios

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Although research has examined the role of power in men’s likelihood of perpetrating sexual harassment against women, less is known about specific personality traits that might predict sexual harassment. Building upon theorizing that men are especially prone to engage in sexual harassment to the extent that their social status is threatened (Berdahl 2007a), we conducted three studies with samples of adults (Studies 1 and 3) and college students (Study 2). In Studies 1 and 3, we asked participants to indicate their likelihood of engaging in sexual harassment of subordinates across a variety of scenarios. In Study 2, we experimentally primed power and had participants choose to send either neutral or sexuality-related articles to an ostensibly real female participant. Results demonstrated that concerns about being perceived as incompetent (i.e., Fear of Negative Evaluation scores) positively predicted men’s sexual harassment of female subordinates. Among women, Fear of Negative Evaluation scores were unrelated to sexual harassment of male subordinates. Further, this relationship held controlling for Narcissism, Self-Esteem, and Generalized Self-Efficacy scores, suggesting that the fear that others would see oneself as incompetent was a better predictor of sexual harassment than one’s self-perceived incompetence. Implications for the relationship between power, personality, and sexual harassment, and for interventions designed to curb sexual harassment, are discussed.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)247-261
Number of pages15
JournalSex Roles
Issue number5-6
StatePublished - Mar 1 2019
Externally publishedYes


  • Fear of negative evaluation
  • Gender harassment
  • Incompetence
  • Power
  • Sexual harassment

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Gender Studies
  • Social Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology


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