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Networks of complicity: social networks and sex harassment

Peggy Cunningham (Rowe School of Business, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada)
Minette E. Drumwright (University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas, USA)
Kenneth William Foster (Rowe School of Business, Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada)

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

ISSN: 2040-7149

Article publication date: 16 December 2019

Issue publication date: 18 May 2021




The purpose of this paper is to explore the question of why sex harassment persists in organizations for prolonged periods – often as an open secret.


In-depth interviews were conducted with 28 people in diverse organizations experiencing persistent sex harassment. Data were analyzed using standard qualitative methods.


The overarching finding was that perpetrators were embedded in networks of complicity that were central to explaining the persistence of sex harassment in organizations. By using power and manipulating information, perpetrators built networks that protected them from sanction and enabled their behavior to continue unchecked. Networks of complicity metastasized and caused lasting harm to victims, other employees and the organization as a whole.

Research limitations/implications

The authors used broad, open-ended questions and guided introspection to guard against the tendency to ask for information to confirm their assumptions, and the authors analyzed the data independently to mitigate subjectivity and establish reliability.

Practical implications

To stop persistent sex harassment, not only must perpetrators be removed, but formal and informal ties among network of complicity members must also be weakened or broken, and victims must be integrated into networks of support. Bystanders must be trained and activated to take positive action, and power must be diffused through egalitarian leadership.

Social implications

Understanding the power of networks in enabling perpetrators to persist in their destructive behavior is another step in countering sex harassment.


Social network theory has rarely been used to understand sex harassment or why it persists.



The authors thank their informants for sharing their stories with them, and they thank Paul Cunningham, H.W. Perry, Jr, Peggy Stockdale and three anonymous reviewers for their insightful comments and constructive suggestions for improvement.


Cunningham, P., Drumwright, M.E. and Foster, K.W. (2021), "Networks of complicity: social networks and sex harassment", Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, Vol. 40 No. 4, pp. 392-409.



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Copyright © 2019, Emerald Publishing Limited

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