For those of us who follow issues concerning workplace culture and gender discrimination #MeToo didn’t come as a surprise. It shone a light on stories that reflected the experience of women in most, if not all, professions, and we collectively allowed ourselves to hope that the future would be a brighter place for women in the workplace.
This notion is considered in next month’s Harvard Business Review, where academic research has examined the attitudinal fall-out from #MeToo and revealed that the impact is not as positive as we may have desired. In essence, whilst women feel as though they would “be more willing now to speak out about harassment” and men “anticipated that they would be more careful about potentially inappropriate behaviour,” there were other aspects of their professional lives where they would modify their behaviour in a way that is not exactly conducive to a progressive workplace environment.
Data from early 2019 shows that 19% of men were reluctant to hire attractive women, and this number increased for jobs involving “close interpersonal actions with men” (for example travel). Furthermore, men are more likely to exclude women from social interactions and would be reluctant to have one-to-one meetings with women. Not exactly great news for helping to ensure that there is sound female representation within your workforce, and it certainly helps to reinforce old masculine-centric habits of “doing business on the golf course” or “sealing the deal in the bar”.
As an Executive Search firm that works across a tremendous range of sectors, we know that our clients are anxious to ensure that their recruitment processes are fair, transparent and deliver representation in all forms. Furthermore, there are huge efforts afoot to ensure that business practices are modern and fit for purpose. Yet what we hallowed as a progressive movement could eat away at this momentum.
The research demonstrated that both men and women (on the whole) understood what constitutes harassment, which is perhaps surprising given some of the rhetoric that surfaced when the movement was at its height. However, there is still fear about “inadvertently harassing” a female colleague. Even though this is nonsensical, organisations need to ensure that this is not a factor that could negatively impact its ability to hire talent.
As with many issues relating to diversity, culture is key, and woe betide the organisation that doesn’t take this seriously. My esteemed colleague Kat Gallan recently wrote about the extent to which companies are using their social conscious and culture to drive performance and it is felt that this provides evidence that can help buck the erosion of good, inclusive behaviours. The article in Harvard Business Review states that people of “high character” are less likely to harass, and indeed are more likely to intervene when others do, which underlines the need to promote and measure personal values and integrity.
This echoes some of the thoughts my colleague Clare Bromley and I published in a piece last year which examined how the “fear of saying” (or doing) the wrong thing does not support an environment where differences can be celebrated and used for the common good. Equally, it highlighted the extent to which representation begets inclusion whereby people of all backgrounds feel valued for being themselves.
Our conclusion was that fostering an ethos of learning and challenge is critical to cultural progression, and we believe that this approach helps counteract what Harvard Business Review calls the “#MeToo backlash.” In short, helping your colleagues understand that the fear of harassing others, or indeed being accused of being a harasser cannot influence who you hire or indeed lead you to curtail their professional activities. As mentioned previously, we are now in an age where we know where the boundaries of appropriate behaviour lie and, as knowledge is power, it is within our gift to ensure that progress continues to head in the right direction.
For more information please contact Elizabeth James, Partner and head of the Education Practice at Berwick Partners, specialising in recruiting academic and professional services leadership appointments across the Higher Education sector.
 “Looking Ahead: How What We Know About Sexual Harassment Now Informs Us of the Future,” by Leanne E. Atwater, Allison M. Tringale, Rachel E. Sturm, Scott N. Taylor, and Phillip W. Braddy (Organizational Dynamics, forthcoming)