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Are women really no better off in the workplace after #MeToo?

The #MeToo movement seemed poised to help us create more equitable workplaces — where women thrive as much as men. Unfortunately, we have yet to see this come to fruition in any significant way. And, in some cases, the backlash has made it even more difficult for women to get ahead.

The hashtag #MeToo was first used on social media in 2006 by civil rights activist Tarana Burke to bring awareness to sexual abuse of women of color so they could empower each other through empathy. 

#MeToo took on a new life in 2017 after prominent Hollywood actresses began to speak openly about sexual harassment and assault in the entertainment industry, which emboldened other men and women to bring sexual misconduct to light in their respective industries and workplaces.

For nearly three years now, this simple phrase has empowered people to reveal just how prevalent sexual harassment, assault, and discrimination are at work and has helped to remove those who have abused their authority from positions of power.

The movement seemed poised to create a more equitable workplace in general – one where women thrive as much as men. Unfortunately, we have yet to see this come to fruition in any significant way. And, in some cases, the backlash over this important movement has made it even more difficult for women to get ahead.

Rosie The Riveter

Why such a focus on women in the workplace?

Sexual harassment in the workplace can happen to anyone, but women are targeted more often than men in every area of the world (though the statistics differ by country). In the U.S., 38% of women (nearly three times the number of men) claimed they had been sexually harassed in the workplace as of 2018, and most did not report it for fear of retaliation. Targets of sexual harassment report lower satisfaction with coworkers and work, less commitment to the workplace, and poorer psychological well-being. It’s no surprise that this leads to fewer women staying at companies long enough to climb the corporate ladder. 

Yet it appears that the best solution to end sexual harassment and discrimination is to have more women in positions of power, as business owners, CEOs, and in other executive roles. According to The New York Times

Research has continually shown that companies with more women in management have less sexual harassment. It’s partly because harassment flourishes when men are in power and women aren’t, and men feel pressure to accept other men’s sexualized behavior.”

Right now, women make up roughly half the workforce (and more than half of the college-educated workforce) but only a fraction of executive teams. For example, in the financial services industry, they constituted 61% of accountants and auditors, 53% of financial managers, and 37% of financial analysts in 2018 but only 12.5% of chief financial officers in Fortune 500 companies.

Morning Consult poll found that even when respondents expressed support for more women leaders and gender pay equity, they were less likely to support the changes within their own companies. And when asked about hiring more women in leadership roles, 73% of respondents advocated for it in other companies; only 44% said that this was something their own company should do.

The ‘struggle’ for men to adjust to this ‘new’ way of interacting with women

It’s frustrating to see so little change for women in the workplace after such an empowering movement. But #MeToo is not to blame – it gave women a voice. That it led to confusion among employees who hadn’t received adequate diversity and sexual harassment training is the fault of the companies, the vendors who deliver the training, and most of all, the men and women who still act as predators themselves. 

Nevertheless, it’s important to point out that #MeToo hasn’t “fixed” anything yet for women in the workplace either. In fact, it may have led to even fewer opportunities for women because people say they now feel more confused by what counts as harassment or discrimination. 

A Pew study…showed that 51% of respondents believed that the focus on sexual harassment in light of #MeToo has made it harder for men to understand how to interact with women at work. That appears to be true since…sex-based discrimination was the most common type of charge filed with the agency in 2018.
Pew study released in April of 2018, showed that 51% of respondents believed that the focus on sexual harassment in light of #MeToo has made it harder for men to understand how to interact with women at work (just 12% said it made it easier, while 36% said it made no difference). But one might argue that no one is inventing new rules, they’re simply asking professionals to act professionally at work. 

Still, male executives say they still “struggle to adjust” to this “new” way of interacting with women in the workplace. That appears to be true of everyone since – according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) – sex-based discrimination was the most common type of charge filed with the agency in 2018. This is the first time it has topped racial discrimination as the primary complaint in EEOC-related filings, though it was only by .1%. (Note: An employee can list more than one type of discrimination on a claim.) 

Perceptions of improvement

A survey conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research in collaboration with the software company SAP showed that despite the numbers being troubling for the growth of women in the workplace, roughly 1/3 of working adults said they had talked about sexual misconduct in the workplace with coworkers in the past year. 

men now report being hesitant to network, hold meetings, or have work dinners with female coworkers. That they will still do this with their male colleagues puts women at a gross disadvantage…Since mentoring and networking are vital to advancing one’s career, how are women supposed to take advantage of these benefits if men are afraid to be around them?
American workers, in particular, tended to view the #MeToo movement more favorably than unfavorably, 45% versus 27% (the remaining 28% said they did not have an opinion). When parsed by gender, half of women had a favorable opinion, compared with 40% of men. Still, 34% of men and 19% of women said they view the movement unfavorably. 

Despite the numbers saying otherwise, about half of working adults think things will change for the better for working women as a result of #MeToo and high-profile coverage of sexual harassment and assault scandals. But while many are optimistic, they still tend to think that changes for the better are unlikely to affect them or their workplaces – they seem to believe it will only benefit others.

Sexual harassment and the tip of the iceberg

In a USA Today story about the “unintended consequences” of #MeToo, Johnny C. Taylor Jr., president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, said that male executives had told him that they are now more nervous about hiring women. But this makes the false assumption that women wrongly accuse men of sexual harassment or are somehow oversensitive to appropriate behavior. The truth is that most women who experience sexual harassment don’t even report it. According to a 2008 meta-analysis on sexual harassment data, only 2%-13% of those harassed file a formal complaint. More recent data suggests that 90% never file a complaint, and 75% don’t even tell their employers. 

Neta Moye, an expert on human resources and leadership from the University of Maryland, points out that men have no real reason to fear being falsely accused. In fact, reports of sexual harassment are not ones where innocent, inadvertent comments led to an investigation:

“None of the stories that we learned about in the #MeToo movement was a small, one-time, accidental incident in which some man says to some woman at work, ‘I like your dress.’ These stories are of men who are knowingly, willingly abusing power, usually repeatedly, in order to get sexual favors from women.”

Fear is now putting women at a gross disadvantage for career advancement

So what is there to be afraid of? The answer is nothing if you’re behaving professionally – and yet men now report being hesitant to network, hold meetings, or have work dinners with female coworkers. That they will still do this with their male colleagues puts women at a gross disadvantage when it comes to fitting in and advancing in the workplace. Since mentoring and networking are vital to advancing one’s career, how are women supposed to take advantage of these benefits if men are afraid to be around them? 

This unintended consequence of some men now fearing women needs to be addressed head-on as an attitude that stifles women’s progress at work and leads to less diversity overall in leadership positions.
While false accusations happen, they are both infrequent and fruitless, rarely turning into formal complaints or undue punishments. Nevertheless, being falsely accused is the number one gender issue men are concerned about in the workplace – it ranked higher than actual harassment or equal pay. 

When Bloomberg recently conducted interviews with more than 30 senior executives at the height of the #MeToo movement, they found many succumbed to fear and even stopped supporting diversity leadership initiatives because of what they perceived as the risks of having more women around. 

more recent study published in late September 2019 even found that comparing the attitudes and beliefs of 152 men and 303 women in 2018 and then again in 2019, painted a bleak picture of progress when it comes to women thriving in the workplace after #MeToo. In 2018, more than 10% of men and women said they would be less willing to hire “attractive” women, 22% of men and 44% of women believed men would be more likely to exclude women from social interactions. Nearly 1/3 of men expressed reluctance to have one-on-one meetings with women. By early 2019, 19% of men still expressed reluctance to hire attractive women, 21% said they were hesitant to hire women for jobs involving close interpersonal interactions with male colleagues (like travel), and 27% said they avoid one-on-one meetings with female colleagues. 

2019 survey conducted by LeanIn.org and SurveyMonkey found that 60% of male managers are now uncomfortable performing everyday workplace activities such as mentoring, working one-on-one, or socializing with women, which represented a 32% increase over last year.

However you add up the numbers, they don’t equate to success for women in the workplace. 

This unintended consequence of some men now fearing women needs to be addressed head-on as an attitude that stifles women’s progress at work and leads to less diversity overall in leadership positions. This behavior has been normalized – even valorized – by people like Vice President Pence, who has openly thrown in the towel on interacting with women alone when he proclaimed that he would not eat dinner alone with a woman who is not his wife, nor will he attend an event where alcohol is being served without her by his side (which likely qualifies as illegal discrimination). Before that, we had the “Billy Graham Rule,” which has now been around for over 70 years, in which men purport to “avoid any decision that may evoke suspicion or compromise of our marriage” by refusing ever to be alone with any woman other than their wife.  

We must be cautious not to confuse men’s fear of their own behavior with any real threat presented by women. If men are truly afraid of what they might do if they lose control, companies need to address this directly for many reasons, not the least of which is that the lack of gender diversity harms their bottom line. But this is very different from being afraid of women making false claims because they somehow feel emboldened by #MeToo.

The failure of traditional sexual harassment training

If sexual harassment is keeping women out of the workplace and the fear of being accused of harassment is keeping men from giving women the chance to advance, then sexual harassment training is an important issue to address. 

Alas, traditional sexual harassment training in the workplace is no better at preventing bad behavior than diversity training is at preventing discrimination. This is partly because the types of training programs and policies implemented were – and often still are – legalistic and mandatory, two qualities that are known to lead to a training’s failure. (Or if you need another example of why you should revisit your old training programs farmed out to consultants, just take a look at the current controversy involving Ernst & Young.)

Research from Shannon Rawski, at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh, for example, has shown that sexual harassment training that described people in a legal context (as harassers or victims) led attendees to reject it as a waste of time since they weren’t willing to label themselves this way. While training can make people more aware of definitions of harassment and ways to report it, some studies have shown that employees who receive the training end up being more confused about what constitutes sexual harassment at the end than they were at the beginning. Paying millions of dollars for employees to take a class on the topic doesn’t help build an infrastructure or culture that discourages harassment or discrimination. In fact, attending training doesn’t even make people less likely to engage in harassing behaviors.  

…traditional sexual harassment training in the workplace is no better at preventing bad behavior than diversity training is at preventing discrimination. This is partly because the types of training programs and policies implemented…are…legalistic and mandatory, two qualities that are known to lead to a training’s failure.
To make matters worse, research has found that some sexual harassment policies strengthen unequal gender beliefs among men and women because they tend to portray men as dominant and sexually insatiable, and women as vulnerable. These beliefs reinforce the gender norms that encourage men to abuse their power in the first place. 

It remains to be seen whether changes in harassment training will be effective – partly because we don’t know precisely what changes have been made and companies are loath to discuss them. But almost 4 in 10 working Americans say their employer has established new training on harassment in the workplace or instituted new policies about harassment in the last two years, and most of those people thought it was for the best. 

In nearly three years, do we applaud companies for making 20% of women feel as though things have gotten better at work or lament that close to 80% of women believe that no progress has been made towards equality?
Of course, that leaves the majority of workers with the standard fare when it comes to harassment training. According to Forbes, a GlobeScan survey revealed that 41% of companies report no change in their approach to women’s empowerment issues in general. Another poll from Morning Consult showed that only 20% of women say things have gotten better for women in their companies in the last five years. 

Is the glass half empty or half full?

In nearly three years, do we applaud companies for making 20% of women feel as though things have gotten better at work or lament that close to 80% of women believe that no progress has been made towards equality? 

Social justice issues aside, McKinsey has reported that companies that are gender diverse are 15% more likely to outperform their peers. Credit Suisse found a correlation between having more women in decision-making roles and better performance of a company on the stock market; firms with more female leaders had a stronger share price performance between 2012 and 2019. Despite these statistics, Bloomberg reports that women make up just 27% of the FTSE 100 executive boards, and just 10.6% of Fortune 500 board seats. And while a record number of CEOs last year were women, that number was only 32. Despite the cold, hard facts, a new Randstad U.S. study found that 54% of those surveyed said their companies have a good representation of female leaders.

There are several disconnects to grapple with here – and that’s before we even add another layer of complexity by trying to measure the effects of #MeToo on women of color and diverse sexualities and gender identities. 

What we do know is that something has to give. Saying #MeToo has created a culture of fear is placing the blame yet again on the victims. It’s time for companies to step up and recognize that traditional methods are no longer useful or profitable and that nothing can change without people experiencing a little discomfort. Legalistic gender diversity and sexual harassment training doesn’t do much good – instead, we need to build workplaces that reject harassment, not just define it during a one-day seminar. And that’s hard work. 

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Visit our workplace diversity hub for further reading relating to current challenges faced by women and people of color, wage gaps, successful inclusion strategies, diversity in corporate and government leadership, effective talent acquisition and diversity programs, and how artificial intelligence affects diversity outcomes.

Jessica Baron, PhD

Jessica has a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science. She works as a writer and consultant on a wide range of topics, including the ethics of science, technology, and medicine; science and pseudoscience in the wellness industry; national security; and diversity in the workplace.

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