27 September 2023

Safety in numbers: How women leaders can help curb sexual harassment

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Antony Alex* says greater numbers of women in leadership roles can help address the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.

Women are not new to leadership; they have been in the seat of political power from time immemorial.

To mention just a few, Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth, Indira Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto, and Angela Merkel have ruled with great panache and political acumen.

However, when you look at women’s representation in leadership roles, over a period of time, the average is extremely low and scattered over many centuries.

Women are still significantly outnumbered in almost all aspects of lives, including the board room.

A gender diverse board better represents the organisation and helps bring in a diverse range of opinions.

Though gender diversity at the board level has steadily improved in the last few years across the world, there is still a long way to go for equalisation in terms of female representation at the top.

Once women rise to leadership, however, the challenges do not end.

According to research by ScienceDirect, once women are in a leadership role, they are often perceived to be less deserving in comparison to their male counterparts.

This can lead to a reduction in cooperation and negative subordinate behaviour towards women leaders.

This is one of the reasons women at the top are likely to face a wide variety of sexual harassment, discrimination, microaggressions, unconscious bias, etc.

Being the ‘‘only one’’ in these top positions exposes women to worse experiences than if they were “one of many”.

And women leaders are more likely to face unprofessional and demeaning remarks.

To fix this, organisations need to address power in numbers, not just in hierarchy and authority.

Women workers are frequently harassed, in part, because they are outnumbered.

The answer is to bring more women into the leadership ranks.

In workplaces and industries where women are well represented in the core jobs, harassment is significantly less likely to occur.

Unequal power relations

Hierarchy is a factor that increases the odds of harassment that occurs.

Most organisations are hierarchical but what is important is how skewed the power imbalances are, among different people in the system.

People who are higher up the ladder may be more inclined to behave recklessly, while subordinates at the lower end of the hierarchy are less able to push back.

It is the most vulnerable women among us, those who hold lower-level jobs, those with less education, or those who have been victimised before, who are harassed often.

Gender bias and stereotypes

There is no lack of qualified women to fill leadership roles.

The problem arises when women try to balance family and work because the caregiving responsibilities lie with them due to the way our society is constructed.

Because women put many more hours into such household activities than men, it greatly disadvantages them at the workplace.

Outdated traditional views about women and men are some of the factors that contribute to a gender bias at the workplace.

Solution — promote more women into leadership positions

Multiple studies have proven that harassment flourishes in workplaces where women have little power and men dominate in management.

Reducing power imbalances can change the workplace culture because women are less likely than men to harass.

Male privilege leads to sexism that prevents women from shattering the glass ceiling.

Harassment is significantly less likely to occur in workplaces and industries where women are well represented in the “core” jobs.

This is because when women are in positions of influence, gender bias and power imbalances can be more effectively countered when they act as a collective to fight for equality.

Additionally, female managers show a lower desire than men to seek power “for power’s sake”.

Rather than pursuing status and recognition, female managers are more inclined to lead with their conscience, focusing on providing support and treating all team members fairly.

* Antony Alex is founder and CEO of Rainmaker. He tweets at @ANTONYALEX13.

This article first appeared at yourstory.com.

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