Preventing #MeToo at Work — What Will it Take?

It’s been over a year and a half since #MeToo went viral and rocked Hollywood, government, tech, and other workplaces across the US. Indeed, 2018 saw #MeToo plastered over 18 million times across social media and the news, exposing the magnitude of sexual harassment issues in the workplace. Along with exposure, is an increased understanding of the high costs associated with sexual harassment in the workplace. Annual costs associated with sexual harassment due to absenteeism, lost productivity, and turnover exceeds $6 million per Fortune 500 company. Sexual harassment remains insidious and rampant, with industry estimates ranging from 50% to 71% of working women experiencing some form of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Companies and institutions continue to face and address sexual harassment with actions ranging from firing perpetrators, to integrating sexual harassment prevention training for employees with added and clarified reporting avenues, to instituting ‘zero tolerance’ and anti bullying policies. While these are important actions to take, they aren’t enough to fully prevent sexual harassment, nor do they create a true and impermeable culture of equity. Unfortunately, many corporate responses have focused on reducing legal liability for harassment. Much more must be done to uproot the sexual harassment that remains so pervasive and entrenched.

Gender-related issues in the workplace, including sexual harassment, compensation inequity, lack of women in the boardroom, etc. are interlinked, and are symptoms of deeper power dynamics and inequities. These issues aren’t new, but have become more visible to the public than ever. Without addressing the underlying power dynamics, actions to address sexual harassment and other issues will be little more than a temporary bandaid for a much deeper wound.

So what can be done to prevent sexual harassment from occurring in the first place and promote a culture of equity? And what is the role of organizational leaders — who are predominantly men?

The Center for Equity, Gender & Leadership (EGAL) and the International Center for Research on Women set out to answer these questions. Through a literature review, interviews, and company case studies we found that tackling unequal power dynamics and preventing gender-related issues from occurring requires work at three levels simultaneously — the institutional or policy level, the workplace culture/community level, and the individual level.[1] This is further explored in our recent case study on HBR, “Promoting a Culture of Equity in the #MeToo Era.”

At the institutional level, there are various actions that can be taken across six primary categories.

  • Recruitment, pay and promotion: Reviewing, altering, and adding policies here is a key first step (e.g., not asking for previous salary history, creating a uniform evaluation cycle, and assessing employee performance on standard decisive factors). Critically, gender discrimination should not be reinforced or inadvertently made possible through existing policies.
  • Flexible work opportunities and caregiving support: Instituting policies in these two categories are critical for gender equity. Women, who are primary caretakers in societies globally, can particularly benefit from flexible work and caregiving support that enable them to still meet caretaking expectations and responsibilities. There are opportunities to also encourage men to utilize flexible work options and take time off to care for others (e.g., through paternity leave) which can have positive impacts for individuals and also the potential to influence larger social norms around caretaking expectations.
  • Sexual harassment: Instituting policies and practices to directly address and mitigate sexual harassment such as those aforementioned (e.g., ‘zero tolerance’ policy, sexual harassment training) are important actions to take — but again do not alone address the root of the issue.

While institutional policies have great potential in supporting gender equity, ultimately the workplace culture and individuals at the workplace heavily influence how those policies are put into action (or not).

At the community level, there are strategies that can support managers in creating a workplace culture that supports gender equity. Managers must understand why policies are implemented and how to implement them effectively — and they must be held accountable. Also, because individuals can have unconscious biases, they may be unaware of how their actions reinforce gender norms. Managers and organizational leaders, who learn to be aware of their own biases, can proactively question and address them. Key practices at the community level include:

  • Developing accountability mechanisms for managers;
  • Training managers on topics such as unconscious bias and providing effective feedback;
  • Implementing equitable mentorship and sponsorship opportunities; and
  • Establishing affinity groups for women and allyship opportunities for men (i.e. Manbassador programs[2]).

At the individual level, leaders can support gender equity in the workplace by encouraging, maintaining, and enforcing policies and procedures that support the success of both women and men. Indeed, equity fluent leaders (EFLs) drive their company’s culture. EFLs, a term trademarked by EGAL, are leaders who “understand the value of different lived experiences and courageously use their power to address barriers, increase access, and drive change for positive impact”. Through their own behaviors and actions, EFLs can demonstrate their commitment to gender equity, and create conditions and processes that encourage lower level managers to do the same. Although leaders cannot, and should not, be held responsible for changing the attitudes of their individual employees, they are responsible for creating a workplace environment where employees can thrive and the business can succeed. Understanding the challenges that women and other marginalized groups face is key, along with creating mechanisms to tackle these challenges. Leaders should therefore work on:

  • Building self-awareness of their own attitudes and behaviors related to gender;
  • Understanding how to recognize and disrupt harmful stereotypes and sexism in the workplace; and
  • Understanding how to design policies and practices for gender equity and putting protections in place to prevent backlash.

It’s imperative for organizations to address root issues of sexual harassment and other gender-related issues in order to eliminate sexual harassment. Addressing root issues holistically requires investment and time with action taken at each of the aforementioned levels. By taking action, organizations can reduce legal and reputational risks, while equity fluent leaders will benefit from being able to attract, keep, and grow the best and brightest talent — no matter their gender.

[1] Smith, G., Rizzo, T. & Glinski, A. (2018). Men and masculinity in the workplace: A brief review of the literature. ICRW & EGAL.

[2] Manbassador programs are groups for “male allies”, which are men that work to end gender discrimination by supporting and being an advocate for women. Various top universities have Manbassador programs, including the Haas School of Business. At Haas, male MBA students fill out manbassador commitment pledges, get regular reminders on their pledges, weekly budges on gender equity, and participate in monthly “guy talk” sessions during which men learn about women’s experiences and engage in conversations about gender equity. Beyond universities, these types of programs can and have been replicated in the workplace.

At the heart of UC Berkeley's Business School, the Center for Equity, Gender, and Leadership educates equity-fluent leaders to ignite and accelerate change.