27 September 2023

Missed fortunes: Research finds another brake on women’s leadership

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Emily Peck* says sexual harassment plays a major role in keeping women from leadership, but researchers are only now starting to consider how its affects women’s careers.

Image: erhui1979

Why aren’t there more women in charge?

For years, researchers have mostly pinned the blame on women themselves.

Motherhood derails women’s careers.

Or maybe women aren’t ambitious enough; they need to “lean in”.

The New York Times recently said male-dominated boardrooms are the problem.

Sexism does get highlighted as an explanation.

Same with microaggressions.

Yet as so many women have come forward to tell stories of sexual harassment thanks to the #MeToo movement, it’s become painfully clear that something else is going on.

And it’s not women’s fault.

Sexual harassment plays a major role in keeping women down, but for all these years researchers have barely considered this as a factor.

“I can’t help but wonder if this has been the elephant in the room all along,” said labour economist Laura Sherbin, Co-President at the US Center for Talent Innovation.

Sherbin said her eyes were opened to the issue after working on a comprehensive study of sexual harassment that her group initiated in the wake of #MeToo.

It’s not hard to find examples of how harassment disrupts women’s careers.

Plenty of women have left work who could have one day led.

Susan Fowler was a promising young engineer at Uber who left the company, and the industry, after her complaints about harassment were ignored.

A young trader at the ANZ banking group was sexually harassed by her boss.

She now sells real estate.

Saleswomen who worked at Monster Energy spoke up about mistreatment and were fired.

A brilliant law clerk was sexually harassed by a judge, left the legal industry entirely, changed her name and became a novelist.

To truly get a sense of how sexual harassment affects potential women leaders, a survey of graduates of Harvard Business School would be a perfect place to start.

The School has churned out more CEOs of public companies than any other business school.

Harvard Business does poll its graduates to see how their careers progress.

And its survey has even drilled down into gender differences.

Yet only recently have the Harvard survey’s authors realised that they need to ask about sexual harassment.

“It wasn’t on our radar,” said Colleen Ammerman, Director of Harvard Business School’s Gender Initiative, who worked on the study.

“We were shocked at ourselves,” she said.

“It’s not something we really thought of.”

In 2012, when they first conducted the Life and Leadership study of graduates, researchers were interested in learning why highly educated women leave the workforce.

They asked about work–family conflict and time devoted to work.

They also found that women took on different kinds of jobs than men ― but nothing on harassment.

In 2015, they sent out a second round of questions to graduates and again didn’t ask about harassment.

Now Ammerman and her colleagues are getting ready to do a third wave of questions.

This time, they plan to delve into the issue.

The survey will look at how people have coped with harassment on the job and how it’s influenced decisions about their careers.

Rachel Thomas, who co-founded LeanIn.org with Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, said her organisation has started looking at harassment.

The group included the phenomenon in its women-in-the-workplace research this year.

“Sexual harassment is the sharp ugly tip of the spear,” Thomas told HuffPost, noting that there’s much more going on in the workplace that also holds women back.

“Microaggressions, all those things that happen to women on a daily basis that are undermining and disorienting.”

“Being mistaken for someone more junior than you are, being spoken over in a meeting.”

When Anne-Marie Slaughter was starting her career in the 1970s, women in the workplace were fighting not to be viewed as sex objects.

“We thought, ‘OK, we did that part and now we’re moving on’,” Slaughter said.

Slaughter created a stir in 2012 with an essay and then a book about how work–life challenges keep women from “having it all”.

If she had to write the book now, even in light of #MeToo, she said, it still wouldn’t be about harassment.

“There are two huge obstacles to women’s advancement,” said Slaughter.

Harassment and discrimination is one, and the struggle between care-work and work outside the home is the other.

Victims of sexual harassment typically lose their jobs for one of two reasons, explains Frank Dobbin, a professor of sociology at Harvard University who’s studied the effectiveness of anti-harassment training.

“Either they quit, or they try and address the problem and face retaliation ― and then leave.”

There’s little systematic data on how harassment affects attrition, but Dobbin and others point to one study published in the American Sociological Review in 2012 that found 80 per cent of young women who report being sexually harassed in their jobs leave those jobs.

(The rate is 50 per cent for those who aren’t harassed.)

Women left not just because of the harassment but also because of how employers responded to it — often by discounting women’s complaints or alienating them from their colleagues.

“Several women talked about how ‘it’s not worth my energy to change the culture, I’d rather move into a different type of career where this isn’t going to happen’,” said Heather McLaughlin, a sociology professor at Oklahoma State University who co-authored the study.

And that’s doubly unfortunate, because the strategies employers use to combat harassment haven’t been successful.

Indeed, according to Dobbin’s research, a lot of the current thinking on how to fight harassment actually winds up forcing victims out of organisations.

The best way to combat harassment?

The answer is simple, Dobbin writes in a recent article: “Hire and promote more women.”

The logic is easy to follow.

“If all the important meetings have 50 per cent women, none of them happen in strip clubs,” Dobbin told HuffPost.

So more women leaders leads to less harassment, but in the meantime harassment is leading more women to leave jobs.

It’s a pernicious cycle that researchers are only beginning to understand.

* Emily Peck is a senior reporter for The Huffington Post. She tweets at @EmilyRPeck.

This article first appeared at www.huffingtonpost.com.au.

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