In the fall of 2017, when The New York Times and other media began reporting on widespread sexual harassment and assault by powerful male entertainment figures, many people were heartened. The conventional wisdom was that bringing the issue to light and punishing those responsible would have a deterrent effect. Leanne Atwater, a management professor at the University of Houston, had a different response. "Most of the reaction to #MeToo was celebratory; it assumed women were really going to benefit," she says. But she and her research colleagues were skeptical. "We said, 'We aren't sure this is going to go as positively as people think — there may be some fallout.'"
In early 2018 the group began a study to determine whether their fears were founded. They created two surveys — one for men and one for women — and distributed them to workers in a wide range of industries, collecting data from 152 men and 303 women in all.
First the researchers sought to understand whether men and women held different views about what constitutes sexual harassment. They took this tack because men accused of the behavior frequently claim they didn't understand how their actions were being perceived, while women who report it are sometimes deemed overly sensitive. The surveys described 19 behaviours — for instance, continuing to ask a female subordinate out after she has said no, emailing sexual jokes to a female subordinate and commenting on a female subordinate's looks — and asked people whether they amounted to harassment. For the most part, the two genders agreed. For the three items on which they differed, men were more likely than women to label the actions harassment. "Most men know what sexual harassment is, and most women know what it is," Atwater says. "The idea that men don't know their behavior is bad and that women are making a mountain out of a molehill is largely untrue. If anything, women are more lenient in defining harassment."
Next the researchers explored the incidence of harassment in the workplace. Sixty-three per cent of women reported having been harassed, with 33 per cent experiencing it more than once. A woman's age, the supervisor's gender, whether the woman filled a blue-collar or a white-collar role, and whether she was married had no bearing on the likelihood that she had been harassed. Just 20 per cent of women who had been harassed reported the episode; among those who didn't, the chief deterrents were fear of negative consequences and apprehension that they would be labelled troublemakers. Five per cent of men admitted to having harassed a colleague, and another 20 per cent said that "maybe" they had done so.
The study's biggest surprise has to do with backlash. Respondents said they expected to see some positive effects of the #MeToo movement: For instance, 74 per cent of women said they thought they would be more willing now to speak out against harassment, and 77 per cent of men anticipated being more careful about potentially inappropriate behavior. But more than 10 per cent of both men and women said they thought they would be less willing than previously to hire attractive women. Twenty-two per cent of men and 44 per cent of women predicted that men would be more apt to exclude women from social interactions, such as after-work drinks; and nearly one in three men thought they would be reluctant to have a one-on-one meeting with a woman. Fifty-six per cent of women said they expected that men would continue to harass but would take more precautions against getting caught, and 58 per cent of men predicted that men in general would have greater fears of being unfairly accused.
Because the data was collected soon after the #MeToo movement gained momentum, and because much of it focused on expectations, the researchers conducted a follow-up survey (with different people) in early 2019. This revealed a bigger backlash than respondents had anticipated. For instance, 19 per cent of men said they were reluctant to hire attractive women, 21 per cent said they were reluctant to hire women for jobs involving close interpersonal interactions with men (jobs involving travel, say) and 27 per cent said they avoided one-on-one meetings with female colleagues; only one of those numbers was lower in 2019 than the numbers projected the year before. The researchers say that some of the behaviours are manifestations of what is sometimes called the Mike Pence rule — a reference to the US vice president's refusal to dine with female colleagues unless his wife is present. "I'm not sure we were surprised by the numbers, but we were disappointed," says Rachel Sturm, a professor at Wright State University who worked on the project. "When men say, 'I'm not going to hire you, I'm not going to send you traveling, I'm going to exclude you from outings' — those are steps backward."
The researchers have several recommendations for organisations looking to reduce harassment, a number of which involve prevention training. Their study shows that traditional sexual harassment training has little effect, perhaps because much of it focuses on helping employees understand what constitutes harassment, and the data shows they already do. Instead, the researchers say, companies should implement training that educates employees about sexism and character. Their data shows that employees who display high levels of sexism are more likely to engage in negative behaviours, and they believe training can reduce those levels. Their data also shows that people of high character — those who display virtues such as courage — are less likely to harass and more likely to intervene when others do. "Though character building in organizations is on the cutting edge and consultants are just learning how to do this, there are training resources available," the researchers write.
In Practice: People are trying to figure out how to respond
In 2015 the Canadian Armed Forces launched Operation HONOUR, aimed at preventing sexual misconduct and assault among military personnel. As part of that effort Denise Preston, a psychologist who has worked with victims and imprisoned sex offenders, was hired in 2017 as the executive director of the Sexual Misconduct Response Centre, which operates outside the military chain of command to support victims of sexual misconduct and lead prevention efforts. She spoke with HBR about the center's work. Edited excerpts follow.
Q: Do you agree with one of the findings of this research — that most men and women understand what constitutes sexual harassment even though the behavior persists?
A: When you ask most people about sexual harassment, sexual assault or issues around consent, they understand on a conceptual level when something is wrong. But they don't see it so clearly when it's their own behavior. On a theoretical level, perpetrators understand what's wrong, but they have rationalisations for why it doesn't apply to them.
Q: Then what kind of training can help?
A: There isn't a simple solution. Basic awareness training — making sure people understand what the laws are, what their rights are and how to access resources if they need them — is important, but it doesn't necessarily change perpetrators' behavior. We also have to teach specific skills. Create scenarios tailored to the audience — situations that will resonate. If people are comfortable, try role-playing. Talk to people about how they'd handle a given situation — why one person would respond one way and someone else another way — and discuss the best responses. That kind of training, including bystander intervention training, gives people tangible skills to practice, and those skills become an automatic reflex.
Q: Is sexual harassment a bigger problem in the military than in the private sector?
A: Research shows that two significant risk factors for sexual harassment are male-dominated organizations and hierarchical ones. Both descriptions apply to the military. But sexual harassment is endemic; it occurs in every industry around the world.
Q: Are you seeing a backlash as sexual harassment gets more attention?
A: According to anecdotes and survey data, some men in the Canadian Armed Forces feel guilt by association — that there's a pervasive message that all men are potential perpetrators. We've heard from male senior officers who are uncomfortable meeting one-on-one with female subordinates. Women in some units report being excluded from certain social events. The reports are unfortunate but not surprising. People are trying to figure out how they fit in, how to respond to these issues and how to stay safe.
Q: Is the prevention work making a difference?
A: Statistics Canada, an independent national office, surveyed sexual misconduct in the Canadian Armed Forces in 2016 and 2018. Unfortunately, the rate of self-reported sexual assaults did not drop in that time, consistent with national trends that have stayed steady for 20 years. But there are positive findings, including a 10% decrease in people who have witnessed or experienced sexualised or hostile behavior. There were reductions in the 15 other types of negative behavior measured. We attribute that to the training the Canadian Armed Forces has put in place.
Written by: Harvard Business Review
© 2019 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group