HARVARD BUSINESS REVIEWS DIGS INTO THE ISSUES...
It’s been nearly two years since the #MeToo movement took on wide momentum, and some big questions remain: What has changed? Do we know if reports of sexual harassment in organizations have decreased? What has happened to the women who have spoken up?
It helps to look at data. In 2016, before #MeToo took off, we surveyed 250 working women in the U.S., asking about the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in their workplaces and how it impacts them at work; we also interviewed 31 women in the U.S. about their individual experiences. We conducted a second survey after #MeToo, in September 2018, of 263 women, and we reconnected with some of the women we previously interviewed to see whether they’ve seen changes or have changed their views. The survey was meant to gather quantitative evidence about changes since #MeToo, and the interviews were meant to provide insight into why and how the changes occurred.
We measured sexual harassment along three dimensions: gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion. Gender harassment involves negative treatment of women that is not necessarily sexual, but may include things like a supervisor or coworker making sexist remarks, telling inappropriate stories, or displaying sexist material. Unwanted sexual attention includes coworker or supervisor behaviors such as staring, leering, ogling, or unwanted touching. Sexual coercion includes bribing or pressuring women to engage in sexual behavior. We also measured participants’ self-esteem and self-doubt, to see how these correlated with their experiences.
What did we find? In terms of what has changed, we saw that fewer women in our sample reported sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention following the #MeToo movement. In 2016, 25% of women reported being sexually coerced, and in 2018 that number had declined to 16%. Unwanted sexual attention declined from 66% of women to 25%. In contrast, we noticed an increase in reports of gender harassment, from 76% of women in 2016 to 92% in 2018. This data suggests that while blatant sexual harassment — experiences that drive many women out of their careers — might be declining, workplaces may be seeing a “backlash effect,” or an increase in hostility toward women.
When we examined women’s feelings of self-esteem and self-doubt, we found an increase in self-esteem and a decrease in self-doubt since 2016. More important, the relationship between unwanted sexual attention and both of these outcomes (lower self-esteem, higher self-doubt) was weaker in 2018. Likewise, the relationship between gender harassment and the outcomes decreased. We believe that the knowledge that so many women experience sexual harassment has tempered its deleterious effects on self-doubt and self-esteem.
Social psychological theories suggest that stigmatizing experiences, like sexual harassment, can be very damaging to self-esteem, especially because the stigmatized individuals fear that they are alone and share in the blame for their mistreatment. Knowing how pervasive sexual harassment is, and hearing other women’s experiences, can help buffer one’s self-esteem from the stigma of harassment.
The women we interviewed told us that the #MeToo movement helped them realize that they were not alone in their experiences. A marketing executive in her late thirties explained, “I started seeing [#MeToo posts] coming in, and I was just like, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re being so brave. Telling very personal stories that I never knew about.’….It isn’t like I’m vindicated; it is more, I’m validated.”
What should companies and managers be doing now? On the most basic level, we need to continue to highlight the importance of preventing sexual harassment. Within organizations, human resource departments need to maintain this as a priority, by offering bystander intervention training, having clear zero-tolerance policies on sexual harassment, and responding dutifully to complaints.
Several women told us that it is imperative that human resource departments remain vigilant in responding to concerns around harassment. One woman said, “I think that it’s more and more common for people to say something when they see something, or feel uncomfortable….The bigger issue isn’t somebody saying something in the first place; it’s the response from an employer when they learn that one of their employees is sexually harassing another.” Managers can also ensure that women and men feel safe to speak up about harassment.
Organizations should also pay attention to gender harassment, including bullying and sexist comments about women. One woman told us she believes that women who have been empowered by #MeToo to call out inappropriate behavior have faced more hostility among coworkers. It is important that organizations are aware of this, as constant exposure to gender harassment can be just as damaging to women as the most egregious forms of sexual harassment.
Offering training that is focused on this issue, as well as on microaggressions and unconscious bias, could be useful not only for encouraging civil behavior but also for empowering peers and leaders to step in when they see bullying or harassing behavior in the workplace. It can be stressful for a woman to stand up to sexist comments when they are directed at her, but it can be a lot easier for a bystander to step in and diffuse the situation.
These efforts will be the most successful if organizations are able to successfully enlist male allies in the gender equity conversation. Importantly, men need to hear the message that taking these issues seriously is not an accusation against them, but rather is a mutual effort to create an environment of respect in the workplace. I like the Twitter campaign #yesallwomen, which is intended to remind men (and women) that no one believes all men are sexual harassers, but that all women do experience harassment in their careers. As one woman told us, “[#MeToo] is bringing out a community of men who are supportive of women and supporting them in whatever challenging situations, whether it’s to the extreme of the #MeToo movement or just down to, How do I get equal representation and equal voice in a meeting? It’s developing a network of men who are comfortable saying, ‘Yeah, I’ll be your supporter, and I can speak out on your behalf.’”
And we cannot forget the most vulnerable workers. Most efforts around gender equity and reducing sexual harassment in the workplace focus on full-time, salaried potential leaders. However, there is evidence that the people at greatest risk for harassment are gig workers, those making minimum wage (or server wages), and part-time or temp employees. People in these roles are often the most powerless because they are not protected by EEOC laws. Creating a safer workplace means keeping everyone in mind. Greater legislation to protect non-employees would be an obvious first step, but until that happens gig workers and organizations can be proactive in putting anti-harassment clauses in their contracts to increase worker protection. Gig workers can also use online platforms to crowdsource information about which organizations are safe
While our results point to the benefits of #MeToo in reducing sexual harassment over the last two years, we need to ensure that we maintain these changes, that women and men provide support for those who are harassed, and that vulnerable workers are not ignored. The goal of these efforts is continued progress on workplace equity, and this goal benefits all employees.