If your workplace is anything like mine, conversation about the flood of sexual harassment incidents has become a daily mainstay. My team’s ears are constantly perked for the next breaking story and there’s a shared sensation of not being able to look away. Our country and our workplaces are witnessing a sea change in how we understand the experiences of women at work; we’re learning a language for a new reality about the ills of a male-dominated environment.
As a female CEO with a half-female executive team, I take some solace in knowing my company has an environment drastically less likely to allow sexual harassment to spawn. Still I remain vigilant about—and urge my peer executives to be vigilant about—taking measures to immunize organizations against sexual harassment and conditions in which women do not feel in control of their economic lives and physical bodies.
The good news is there are proven strategies for safeguarding environments from sexual harassment—I’m not saying it’s going to be easy, but at least we know what we need to do.
Trainings and grievance reporting mechanisms are not the solution.
First, we have to acknowledge trainings and grievance reporting systems as purely cosmetic fixes that let executives off easy and do nothing to change the status quo. Our post-Anita Hill court system has institutionalized trainings and reporting systems as the go-to technique for mitigating harassment even though, as EEOC and labor experts Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev explain in their recent Harvard Business Review article, “such programs have never been proven effective. [Executives] are satisfied as long as the courts are. They don’t bother to ask themselves whether the programs work.”
The fact is audits of such programs have found no evidence that they move the needle. Researchers have found however, that those most likely to be the worst offenders emerge from trainings with more deplorable attitudes toward women than those they entered with! And it gets worse. Dobbin and Kalev write in another HBR.org article that when companies implement grievance procedures, the numbers of women of color in management and non-management roles goes significantly down. And the most dismaying fact about grievance procedures is that they put the responsibility for solving the problem on the harassed employee.
So—what is proven to work?
The solution is to hire and promote more women.
Research consistently shows that harassment flourishes in workplaces where men dominate and women have little power. The tech industry offers stark example of this power imbalance. Promoting women to leadership at greater rates is the only way to rectify the imbalance of pay and power that gives men unchecked control over female workers.
Secondly, having a gender balance in “core” or non-management roles is equally crucial. Harassment occurs significantly less often in industries and workplaces where women are well represented.
Hiring more women takes work, but the good news is we know how to do it. First, make sure you’re attracting women at equal rates as men with job advertisements that use inclusive language and illustrate a collaborative, supportive work environment. Then, make sure that qualified women make it through the resume screen by having managers look at resumes with the names anonymized and without cues of gender. Lastly, set your interviewers up for success by putting in place structured, consistent interview practices which have been shown to be twice as effective at selecting the right candidate as ad hoc interviews.
If you’re serious about ending workplace sexual harassment, you have to get serious about workplace diversity. It’s that simple.