Amid the #MeToo movement, widespread reports of sexual assault and harassment exposed the unsafe and hostile workplaces that women regularly experience in every industry across the nation.
Research from Lean In and SurveyMonkey found that 57 percent of working women have experienced some form of harassment in the workplace, not only sidelining their security, but also their career progression.
While 71 percent of companies have reviewed their sexual harassment policies since the advent of the #MeToo movement, women in the workforce continue to face rampant sexual harassment. MarketWatch reports that over half of human resource professionals saw no evident changes in behavior while the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission saw a significant rise in sexual harassment complaints over the past fiscal year.
To make matters worse, at least half of employees think that punishments for perpetrators are not harsh enough, with high performers never or rarely held accountable for their actions.
Clearly, companies still need to make systematic and cultural changes so that women can feel safe and productive in the workplace. For business owners who are looking to be part of the solution, there are several actionable, concrete steps that have been shown to make a difference.
Hire and Promote More Women
Ever since women have entered the workforce, sexism and harassment have prevented them from breaking the glass ceiling. During the #MeToo movement, the nation saw how patriarchal systems continued to normalize inappropriate behavior and silence female perspectives, showcasing how these male-dominated hierarchies created corrupt work settings by protecting the majority from pushishment or criticism.
A slew of research proves this to be true. The 2018 Hiscox Harassment Study shows that 78 percent of accused harassers are men and 73 percent hold a position senior to the accuser. Research from the Harvard Business Review reports that harassment is more prevalent in workplaces where men hold the most managerial positions.
To counteract negative cultural effects of this hierarchy, a Lean In report advises that companies hire and promote more qualified women, not just in leadership positions, but across the board. Harassment is less likely to occur when women are well-represented in “core” jobs and hold positions of influence. IBM and Starbucks are two corporations that have been recognized for doing exactly that. Gender bias and power imbalances are more effectively controlled when more women have the power to fight in higher numbers for equal rights in the workplace.
Thankfully, a focus on doing the right thing is starting to be recognized as good for businesses, too. Companies that focus on promoting more gender equality at the top can foster more collaborative teams, drive innovation and even make more money.
Enhance Harassment Policies with Interactive Trainings
Of course, there’s a difference between demonstrating dedication to harassment-free environments, and merely offering jargon-filled trainings that simply check the legal liability box. While most companies — 98 percent — do provide conventional anti-harassment policies and sexual harassment trainings, they often makes employees uncomfortable, reinforce gender stereotypes and fail to address the root problem.
Companies interested in finding more effective anti-harassment policies are seeing success with innovative approaches like workplace civility and bystander intervention training programs. These trainings help employees learn how to recognize, intervene, report and show empathy to targets of assault. Research shows it not only increases awareness but also improves attitudes and encourages bystanders to stop assaults before they happen. It also helps survivors report and find support after they experience harassment.
These innovative programs are especially helpful since in-depth zero-tolerance harassment policies, which enforce that harassment of any kind won’t be tolerated in the workplace, are known to backfire. The severity of getting someone fired for inappropriate behavior often lowers the chances of reporting, defeats the goal of learning and can even have polarizing effects on gender relations in the office.
For companies to convince trainees to stay educated on anti-harassment policies without causing fear or resentment, incorporating interactive workplace civility and bystander trainings can effectively permeate cultural changes. Since April 2019, New York City requires by law that all companies with over 15 employees provide these trainings, which could be a long-term solution that soon trickles down to companies across the nation. Since these enhanced programs can foster a sense of community and respect, companies who implement them tend to benefit from safer (and happier) work cultures.
Design the Workplace for Safety
It may be obvious that physical and emotional safety are crucial for a healthy and productive workplace. What’s perhaps not so obvious is how an office’s design can have a drastic impact on worker safety.
Private spaces, for example, allow workers of all genders to have emotional moments, concentrate or take a breather. Too much privacy, however, can be isolating and decrease an employees’ access to help if harassment occurs. Therefore, some private rooms or offices are often designed with transparent features in mind, like glass walls and bright lighting. These designs allow professionals to stay visible during meetings where someone who feels uncomfortable alone with a particular coworker won’t feel as anxious or trapped.
Communal work areas are equally important because they offer the option for coworkers to meet where more bystanders are present. Of course, open, safe offices have enough space for private conversations, too. If possible, companies can enhance safety by incorporating two open exits at the end of each communal room so that people can move about efficiently without fear of being blocked, for example, by an aggressive coworker.
Modern offices need to strike a careful balance between private and communal spaces to cater to the different comfort levels of employees. Research indicates that too much open space can make feel women exposed while too much private space can feel isolating.
Nancy Board, a workplace behavioral health and wellbeing expert, says, “It’s important that women are not ‘trapped’ in corner areas or exposed to areas where they may be locked into a space/office.”
These strategies offer a mixture of emotional safety, a sense of escape, and support — and this is not just for female workers. Studies show workplaces that design with an emphasis on safety improves productivity by eliminating unnecessary stressors in the workday. It’s estimated that for each employee who is sexually harassed, companies lose an average of $22,500 in lost productivity alone. Of course, lost productivity is a small consequence compared to the lasting psychological and emotional impacts harassment can have on those who face it.
Safeguarding The Future of Work
All companies have a legal and moral responsibility to ensure that their employees are safe and able to perform their jobs without fear of physical, emotional or mental harm. Businesses that consciously integrate, adjust and support gender-equal policies, systems and spaces are much more likely to foster this kind of environment. And when companies provide safer environments, they can help create more positive workplaces that harness cooperation and help everyone bring their A-game to work. That’s a world worth fighting for.