While we have seen some strides in efforts to advance more women into top leadership positions—albeit, incrementally small ones—sexual harassment remains a major challenge impacting many women at work.
On the leadership front, a recent McKinsey survey, Women in the Workplace 2021, reported that women’s representation in senior management grew from 23% to 28% between January 2015 and January 2020, while representation in the C-suite increased from 17% to 21%. Unfortunately, the numbers on workplace-based sexual harassment do not signify the same progress.
The number of sexual harassment claims filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission decreased from 7,500 to 6,500 between 2019-20, prompting some experts to presume the drop is attributed to the pandemic-driven shift from office- to home-based work—not because of a significant reduction in risk for women. In 2018, the claim number also was above 7,500, a sharp increase from the prior year.
And, according to a survey of employees in the tech industry, the Trust Radius Women In Tech Report 2021, one in two women and two in three LGBTQ workers have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. The report cites that 72% of women in tech have worked at a company where “bro culture” is pervasive.
These trends could be lessened if men and women leaders work together, says Kathleen Quinn Votaw, CEO of TalenTrust, a human capital consulting firm. But based on past history, it certainly won’t be easy.
“My fear is that if we don’t keep our heads and resolve workplace harassment issues together, it will be women who become the big losers in companies across the country,” says Quinn Votaw, author Dare to Care in the Workplace: A Guide to the New Way We Work.
“If men, who still hold most of the power, are uncomfortable [working with women leaders], women risk being cut out of important interactions and opportunities for promotion. That’s not the outcome we want,” she says.
Quinn Votaw says employers should provide both men and women with tools that minimize, and hopefully eventually eliminate, the destructive polarity currently disturbing workplace peace, safety and productivity.
“Let’s collaborate in defining what will help us all make better choices and create healthier work environments,” she says.
To be clear, she adds, she’s not talking about sexual assault—which is a separate issue and, of course, a horrific crime. She’s focused on what she calls the “natural sexuality” that happens in encounters between human beings.
“Unfortunately, some people don’t understand the boundaries because what is innocent flirtation to one person can be harassment to another,” says Quinn Votaw, who has written about how the basic act of hugging in the workplace can be seen very differently within the cultures of equally successful employers.
Being clear about boundaries—regardless of gender—is very important to establishing a safe environment for all, she adds. For example, Quinn Votaw notes that, driven by the pandemic, some in-person conference planners have established a code to manage attendees’ comfort level with “touch.” That could mean a red nametag that would signal “no handshaking” and green to suggest “happy to shake”—a strategy that she says shows how intentional employers should be about setting boundaries.
Returning to the workplace will present a unique challenge to addressing sexual harassment, Quinn Votaw adds, as the focus on rooting out harassment may have lost some of its momentum (as the EEOC data could indicate), while employers try to manage an entirely different set of pandemic-driven issues now.
“Regardless of the situation, every employer should take care to provide guidelines for culturally appropriate words and behaviors that inspire workplaces where everyone feels safe,” she says.