On the heels of “a major #MeToo moment,” Harvey Weinstein was recently sentenced to twenty-three years in prison for his decades-long spree of sexual crimes. Tina Tchen, president and CEO of the Time's Up Foundation, says the verdict “marks a new era of justice, not just for the Silence Breakers, who spoke out at great personal risk, but for all survivors of harassment, abuse, and assault at work."
There is no denying that the #MeToo movement has created space for sexual harassment survivors to speak up at work. This movement has launched conversations around gender inequity and incited real policy change. However, while conversations are happening and rules are changing, there remains an implicit culture of fear around how to prevent and deal with sexual harassment. Men are avoiding women at work, and women continue to struggle with speaking out. Thus, this lack of action threatens the safety of employees and their ability to thrive at work and in life. And our workplace cultures continue to reinforce these systems of silencing, retribution, and oppression.
Developing the Skills to Combat Cultures of Harassment
Knowing what we know now, what has the #MeToo movement actually done to respond to the pervasiveness of sexual harassment in the workplace?
A study conducted by Harvard Business Review found that fewer women reported sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention following the #MeToo movement. Still, reports of gender harassment increased from 76% in 2016 to 92% in 2018. The study suggests that the empowerment of women speaking out against sexual harassment has led to increased hostility towards women in the workplace. This points to a larger issue within the workplace: gender inequity—and HBR suggests offering training that focuses on responding to microaggressions and unconscious bias at work.
And yet, many approaches to responding to sexual harassment, and the microaggressions that uphold unjust cultures, focus more on policing what you can't do or say, instead of the underlying contexts or necessary skills to combat these cultures. Breaking the Silence Habit: A Practical Guide to Uncomfortable Conversations in the #MeToo Workplace by Sarah Beaulieu explores the pervasiveness of inaction and provides a skills-based approach to addressing sexual harassment prevention and response in the workplace. Beaulieu’s methodology meets individuals where they are and builds their underdeveloped skills, including empathy, situational awareness, boundary setting, and intervention. Ultimately, the way forward is to view embracing uncomfortable conversations in the workplace as a skill and to use this skill to transform workplace relationships, organizations, and communities.
Microaggressions Aren’t so Micro
Sexual harassment is also a slippery slope. For example, a series of actions that make an employee feel uncomfortable may not result in any formal steps to ensure the perpetrator is held accountable. A subtle comment here, or a lingering look there. And those who've experienced microaggressions in the workplace are all too familiar with how hard it is to call out the smaller exclusionary actions that are the most significant barriers to creating inclusive workplaces. In the case of harassment in the workplace, perhaps an employee hasn’t been the victim of assault or feels they don’t have enough evidence that would make a case for harassment, but still feels deeply uncomfortable by their co-worker or boss’ behavior and advances. All this to say, microaggressions aren’t micro - they are the buttress that allows cultures of silence and inequity to exist.
In their new book, Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran coin the term Subtle Acts of Exclusion (SAE) to gain a deeper understanding of microaggressions. By reframing varying interactions in the workplace that subtly exclude women, like avoidance, we're better able to shift our mindset and behaviors. This shift is pertinent to how we participate in both our workplace cultures and in our interpersonal relationships.
“Instead of having a productive conversation [about microaggressions], we end up with silence, resentment, ignorance, and tension,” argue Jana and Baran. Organizational leaders can begin this work by calling out microaggressions when they happen and model accountability. Avoidance, for example, plays a massive role in keeping women from being able to have meaningful conversations with their co-workers and bosses. Without safe spaces to talk about harassment, the problem will persist.
Jana and Baran also emphasize that everyone commits microaggressions and that this a normal byproduct of increasingly diverse workplaces. By anticipating SAE interactions and explicitly acknowledging that people will make mistakes and responding with empathy and compassion, we become better prepared to handle them when they do happen. Calling out SAE requires everyone’s involvement and commitment to holding each other accountable to create an anti-harassment culture.
Mentors as Allies and Advocates for Inclusive, Equitable Workplaces
Organizational leaders can also start to shift the culture of their workplaces by honing in on their interpersonal relationships. The key is mentorship across differences, and mentors are a critically important piece in advocating for inclusive workplaces. Mentorship is also a vital component for retaining diverse talent because it fosters continued engagement and aids career success, which means supporting getting women into positions of influence and leadership. In Lisa Z. Fain and Lois J. Zachary’s book Bridging Difference for Better Mentoring, mentoring is “not only a tool for developing people and organizations but also a transformational process for creating understanding, strengthening relationships, and sharing knowledge among diverse groups of people and cultures.” Within increasingly diverse workplaces, mentorship is one of the most effective tools for building cultures in which people feel they have allies and advocates who can speak honestly and accurately on their behalf if they are vulnerable or living in the margins.
Only 25 percent of women hold leadership positions, and that number is even smaller for women of color. In order to create structural pathways for advancement, women must leverage mentorship relationships to achieve their career goals. Thus, organizations can work to close this gap and confront gender inequity head-on by implementing a mentorship program that is inclusive and honors difference. Fain and Zachary say, “In mentoring, the idea is not to accentuate, avoid, or judge the ways we are different from one another but to honor those differences by balancing commonalities and differences. When we understand and appreciate the differences between us, we can leverage them to improve our conversations, deepen our learning, and spur creative thinking.”
Mentorship programs must avoid a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Programs have to truly support both the mentors and the mentoring partners' experiences. Fain and Zachary’s mentoring framework forces us to move beyond merely accepting differences and to actually see, acknowledge, and understand how difference impacts mentoring relationships. Not only will mentees benefit, but the learning is reciprocal. Mentors grow their cultural competence and become better advocates for their colleagues. Instead of avoiding tough conversations for fear of making mistakes (remember, we all get it wrong), men can become better allies to women in the fight for gender equity.
The impact of #MeToo on our organizations continues to reveal how much more cultural work is ahead of us. While the narrative has started to shift and speaking out is becoming more acceptable, the next phase of the #MeToo movement requires that we confront the smaller, subtler practices that shape our workplaces. The leaders of our organizations have the power to model this shift—by having uncomfortable conversations about sexual harassment, holding ourselves and others accountable when SAE are committed, and mentoring across difference to empower our colleagues and honor them. Starting small, with our relationships, can significantly impact the overall culture of our organizations. And we can all take action to set the standard for the future of business today.