Like something out of an episode of “Mad Men,” stories of powerful men behaving badly began trickling into the evening news. Television executives, CEOs, Hollywood celebrities and politicians were accused of harassing women, denying them opportunities and, in some cases, destroying women’s careers because they refused to succumb to a man’s sexual advances.
Out of that morass grew the #MeToo movement, as women felt emboldened to share their stories. Recognizing the enormity of the problem, corporate America responded by taking women’s harassment complaints more seriously, instituting specialized training and removing offenders from positions of power.
While #MeToo was largely heralded as a major step forward for women, Leanne Atwater, a professor of management at the University of Houston Bauer School of Business, wasn’t convinced. Watching the coverage on television and in newspapers and magazines, she found herself growing concerned—not only that the movement wouldn’t produce the positive impact people were anticipating, but that it could negatively impact women’s careers.
Seeking to determine if her concerns were warranted, Atwater and a group of research colleagues embarked on a study in early 2018. They surveyed 152 men and 303 women across a wide range of industries, asking about their view of sexual harassment, their experiences with sexual harassment in the workplace and what changes they expected to see in response to the #MeToo movement. Well over half (63%) of women reported being harassed, while 33% said they had experienced harassment more than once. Just 20% had reported the incident. The rest cited fear of negative consequences and being labeled a “troublemaker” for not coming forward about the harassment.
Responses related to the impact of #MeToo were mixed. While 74% of women indicated they would be more willing to report instances of harassment and 77% of men expected to be more careful about engaging in inappropriate behavior, an alarming number of respondents predicted reactive behaviors that could potentially erode decades of women’s progress. More than 10% of men and women said they would be less willing to hire “attractive” women, while 22% of men and 44% of women believed men would be more likely to exclude women from social interactions. Nearly one-third of men expressed reluctance to have one-on-one meetings with women, while 58% felt men would have greater fears of being falsely accused.
A follow-up study, conducted one year later, in early 2019, painted an even bleaker picture, with 19% of men expressing reluctance to hire attractive women, 21% saying they are hesitant to hire women for jobs involving close interpersonal interactions with male colleagues (e.g. travel) and 27% saying they avoid one-on-one meetings with female colleagues. This last practice has come to be known as the “Pence Effect” due to Vice President Mike Pence’s proclamation that he won’t be eat dinner alone with a woman other than his wife or attend events where alcohol is served without her by his side.
Atwater believes the fear of being falsely accused is driving the behavior. Whatever the motivation, it’s important to remember such exclusionary actions are still a form of gender discrimination, according to Michelle Anderson, partner in the New Orleans office of Fisher Phillips LLP.
“If you are not going to hire someone because they are female or give them the same opportunities to have a dinner meeting or a closed-door meeting as you would a male colleague, that is just as discriminatory as if you were to sexually proposition them or require them to exchange sexual favors for advancing in the workplace,” says Anderson. “You can’t just treat people differently because you have a fear that, because they are an attractive woman, they are going to bring a claim of sexual harassment.”
The solution lies in creating opportunities for dialogue, not only between the genders, but for men to have “safe spaces” where they feel comfortable sharing their concerns with other men, according to Kellie McElhaney, distinguished teaching fellow at the Haas School of Business, UC-Berkeley and founder of the school’s Center for Equity, Gender and Leadership. She illustrates the point by recalling a board meeting of “super-senior people” she facilitated two years ago.
“One senior venture capitalist man said very emphatically, ‘I’m not taking on any women right now,’ which prompted one of the other very senior men to stand up and say, ‘Hey, that’s just not OK,’ ” says McElhaney. “If there hadn’t been a room of tight-knit people who had created a group of psychological safety, in which the first man felt comfortable saying what was on his mind, it would have festered.”
HR should endeavor to provide opportunities for dialogue, says Atwater, because chances are such exclusionary behavior is going on—whether they see it or not.
“I’m not going to sit down with my HR representative and say, ‘Don’t send me any women’s resumes because I don’t want to hire one,’ ” explains Atwater. “They need to get it out on the table that this stuff is going on and they are not going to tolerate it.”