#MeToo in the Corporate World, Power, Privilege, and the Path Forward by Sylvia Ann Hewlett
The #MeToo movement brought a storm of change, but its over-focus on the experiences of young, white women is problematic, argues economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett, given that men, older women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community and others also experience abuse. To provide greater safety and support for all, leaders can make changes to corporate values, culture, and procedures for tracking incidents and responses. Studies verify that diversity boosts a company’s bottom line. Thus, Hewlett says, by committing to “inclusive leadership” organizations help their employees – and themselves.
- The #MeToo moment increased public support for victims, but young, white women aren’t the only ones who experience harassment.
- The term #MeToo went viral in 2018.
- A 2018 harassment study challenged traditional “victim” and “aggressor” profiles.
- Power – not gender – often lies at the root of sexual harassment or assault.
- Men are less likely to report sexual harassment or assault because it runs counter to their “masculine identity.”
- When former NFL linebacker Terry Crews was harassed, #MeToo paved the way for him to go public.
- Nike paid the costs of ignoring rampant sexual harassment within its organization.
- Employees can create a safer workplace.
- #MeToo has undercut male mentoring of female professionals, but you can mentor safely.
- Corporate culture can change if leaders pave the way.
#MeToo in the Corporate World Book Summary
The #MeToo moment increased public support for victims, but young, white women aren’t the only ones who experience harassment.
The #MeToo movement brought greater public support for victims of sexual harassment, resulting in increased penalties for perpetrators and support for greater leadership diversity. While the movement generally focuses on older, powerful white men who assault or harass younger white women, this narrative is too narrow. Other employees – including people of color and LGBTQ+ staff members – experience as much, if not more, harassment.
“New evidence makes quite clear…that the #MeToo movement has not had a big enough tent.”
Sexual misconduct carries heavy costs for organizations – as CBS, Nike and the Catholic Church discovered. The lasting concern is whether this movement compels companies to change their culture and leadership styles.
The term #MeToo went viral in 2018.
The Civil Rights Act, which made discrimination illegal under Title VII, didn’t mention sexual harassment. Cornell University scholar Lin Farley coined that term in 1975.
In 1991, a US Senator called Anita Hill’s claim of sexual harassment by then-Supreme Court nominee Judge Clarence Thomas a “fantasy.” Since then, the Boston Globe has uncovered abuse in the Catholic Church; Bill Cosby fell from paternal figure to pariah; and – prior to the 2016 presidential election – candidate Donald Trump openly talked of kissing and fondling women at will. When former victims and law enforcement officials held film producer Harvey Weinstein accountable for years of harassment, the #MeToo movement ignited. The term went viral in 2018, but Black civil rights advocate Tamara Burke, co-founder of the #MeToo movement, first used it in 2006. The volume of accusations against Weinstein and the social status of his victims brought sexual harassment into public consciousness.
“Men and women of color and LGBTQ employees experience particularly high rates of sexual harassment and assault.”
Media headlines on this issue moved public opinion. In 2018, this shift affected the careers of 201 high-profile men and prompted corporate leaders and shareholders to face the problem of workplace harassment directly.
A 2018 harassment study challenged traditional “victim” and “aggressor” profiles.
Fully one-third of women report having experienced sexual harassment at work; 13% of men report similar treatment as well. A majority of both men and women stated their harassers occupied more senior positions within their organizations. Regarding sexual assault, the numbers for men and women varied by only 2%. The Center for Talent Innovation (now named Coqual), founded by author Sylvia Ann Hewlett, conducted a study of harassment among more than 3,000 college-educated “full-time white collar” employees in 2018. Black men reported a much higher incidence of sexual harassment (21%) than other groups. Among women, Latinas and Caucasians reported the highest incidence of sexual harassment at work, both at 37%, followed by 25% of Black women and 23% of Asian women. Sexual assault by a colleague affected 7% of Black women and 6% of Caucasian, Latina and Asian women.
““These uncomfortable facts support the idea that the fundamental variable in workplace sexual misconduct is not ‘man’ or ‘woman’ but power.” ”
LGBTQ+ staff members reported more incidents of harassment and assault than any other group. A shocking 43% of LGBTQ+ women and 23% of LGBTQ+ men suffered harassment.
Power – rather than gender – often lies at the root of sexual harassment or assault.
While the vast majority of cases of sexual harassment involve men as perpetrators, women carry out their share of harassment. In one situation, a male graduate student sued a female professor who essentially controlled his career.
“As more women gain power…they may act more like men and abuse that power more often.”
Women prey on women, too. The CTI study found that a woman was the aggressor in 13% of female harassment and 19% of female assault cases. Lara Stemple, assistant dean at UCLA Law School, studies “sexual victimization” by women. Her 2014 research indicated that a higher number of women victimize men and women than the CTI study found. Stemple believes the basis of harassment is “abuse of power.” Seeing women only as victims reinforces “outdated stereotypes” of females as one-dimensional. Because the role of women as corporate leaders is relatively new, statistics offer no baseline for how women in such positions of power behave. Predatory women, thus, seem like outliers.
Men are less likely to report sexual harassment or assault because it runs counter to their “masculine identity.”
The law did not recognize sexual harassment against men until 1998. As late as 2013, the FBI still defined rape as a type of assault featuring a female victim. With no legal history of support for their claims of assault, men rarely reported sexual harassment or abuse. The military epitomizes this idea of male culture. A 2014 RAND Corporation study reported that of the 1.3 million US soldiers on active duty, 20,000 reported at least one sexual assault in the preceding year. Some 60% of the victims were men. About a third of them said the assault occurred as part of hazing.
“Feelings of powerlessness in the wake of sexual harassment and assault seem to be particularly damaging to men.”
When men find themselves in the victim role, they feel more shame and self-blame than women in that situation. CTI data found that job satisfaction for harassed men fell from 56% to 39%, while for women it fell only 8%.
When a man sexually harassed former NFL linebacker Terry Crews, the #MeToo movement paved the way for him to go public.
In 2018, testifying before a US Senate Judiciary Committee, Terry Crews, a Black former NFL linebacker, now an actor and television host, relayed an experience with sexual harassment. At 6’3” and 245 lbs., Crews might seem like the last person to fall victim to unwanted sexual behavior. But, at a Hollywood work party in 2016, as Crews extended his hand for a handshake, high-profile agent Adam Venit – who worked for the agency that represented Crews – grabbed Crews’ genitals and squeezed.
Crews didn’t respond to Venit’s action with violence. He left the party and contacted his agency the next day. Venit called Crews to apologize, but the agency did not respond further. When Weinstein’s victims came forward and launched the #MeToo movement, Crews spoke out on Twitter, filed a police report and sued the agency. After his Tweet, a rapper accused Crews of not being masculine; a hip-hop producer asserted the agency should reinstate Venit; and numerous people told Crews that Venit was only joking.
Venit’s actions epitomize the sort of racist behavior intended to make minority people feel subordinate. Crews’ experience illustrates a perception issue which unfairly characterizes Black men: some regard them as “predators,” but also see them as objects of sexual fantasy. People project similar ideas onto Latina and Black women. Columbia Law School professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe discrimination based on multiple, overlapping factors – such as race, gender, social class and sexual orientation.
Nike paid the costs of ignoring rampant sexual harassment within its organization.
Workplace sexual harassment and assault can harm a company’s bottom line five ways. In 2018, when female Nike employees “revolted” due to career limitations, male colleagues’ poor behavior and an ineffectual corporate HR response, the company experienced all five negative effects.
The first effect is high legal costs. Shareholders and previous employees are suing Nike. Illustrating the second pain point, Nike lost 11 senior leaders, including a president who was in line to succeed the CEO. The third penalty is reduced market value. For Nike, with a brand worth $32 billion, the shareholder’s lawsuit asserts that the work environment “harmed and threatens” its financial future. The fourth effect is loss of talented recruits. Some women became unwilling to work for Nike. A Kapor Center study showed that culture, not money, is the main reason people leave a company. The fifth cost is to brand value. When headlines repeatedly detail sexually inappropriate treatment of women at a company, it hurts the brand.
Employees can create a safer workplace.
As an individual or manager, follow your company’s guidelines to keep yourself and your colleagues safe. Respect other people’s personal space. For most people [pre-COVID], this is a minimum distance of 18 inches (45.72 cm).
Though attire is never an excuse for harassment, dress professionally at work. The female general counsel for International Paper underscores this by advising separating how you dress in your personal time versus how you want to appear at work or at work-related social functions.This advice also applies to female executives. In 2008, Erin Callan became the CFO of Lehman Brothers. When a glossy magazine featured her in a photo spread wearing low-cut blouses, short skirts and stiletto heels, the media focused on her appearance, not her professional accomplishments.
“Whether you are junior or senior, man or woman, you should relentlessly telegraph professionalism at work.”
If you’re traveling with a colleague, meet in the hotel lobby, a conference room or a business area instead of a hotel room or at the bar. One senior vice president at Freddie Mac uses his company’s corporate cafeteria, instead of a local restaurant, as a place to get to know his subordinates. Having an affair with a subordinate, boss or married person will damage your career and have a negative impact on morale in your office. If you are responsible for misconduct, apologize. A Canadian broadcaster accused of sexually abusing more than 20 women wrote an essay about it. Instead of apologizing, he lamented his lost career and reputation. The attitude he displayed in his article caused such a backlash that the publication fired the editor who published it.
When you see sexual harassment at work, identify it immediately and talk to your human resources officer. If you witness “disrespectful” behavior, enlist someone higher up in the organization to talk to the perpetrator if he or she doesn’t work for you.
#MeToo has undercut male mentoring of female professionals, but you can mentor safely.
Executive diversity results in higher corporate revenues and returns, but the #MeToo movement makes it clear that executives must modify how they cultivate new talent. When you work with someone you mentor, meet in public areas. Share the background of the person you’re coaching with your colleagues and explain why he or she is an asset to the company. In the quest for diversity, remain open to new ideas. For example, a female Merrill Lynch director in charge of diversity marketing took a chance on a young male associate who wanted to market to the LGBTQ+ community. She gave him a $15,000 budget and clear goals to see what he could create. His initiative resulted in $1.4 billion of business.
In the past, people didn’t believe women could contribute to a company’s bottom line. Even now, some men look askance at women who win quick promotions.As a senior leader or CEO, challenge this attitude by citing studies proving that greater diversity provides greater revenue.
Corporate culture can change if leaders pave the way.
Corporate values matter when companies adhere to them. Companies that act in alignment with their values outperform companies that don’t. Change your corporate values to reflect “zero tolerance” of sexual misconduct. The CEO should communicate this red line directly through words and actions. Executives and board members might not want to hear reports of harassment from HR, but must be aware of what is happening in their companies’ offices.
Train and coach employees, so they feel comfortable taking action when they see inappropriate behavior. Since men are also victims of sexual harassment and abuse, these policies should empower, not censor them. Create new ways to report incidents of sexual misconduct and to collect information about them. The HR department should not be the sole avenue for reporting harassment. IBM, for example, created “Talk It Over,” a hotline employees can call about harassment incidents and to determine next steps. The system alerts senior managers if the company receives two complaints against any individual. Be proactive – use existing data and create information banks to identify problem areas.
“Own the harm. Do the work. Make restitution. That’s what a real mea culpa looks like.”
Take organizational responsibility for past events. People must believe the company will stand behind its values of inclusivity and respect, even if these are newly stated values. Support “inclusive leadership.” Encourage different perspectives. Take risks. Give feedback. Help bolster employees’ independence and “share credit.”
About the Author
Economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett is the CEO of Hewlett Consulting Partners, founder of the Center for Talent Innovation and author of 14 books, including Executive Presence and The Sponsor Effect.