How can companies tackle the tech sector's sexual harassment problem?

Profile picture for user catheverett By Cath Everett September 11, 2019
Summary:
The tech industry is second only to the media in terms of incidents of sexual harassment. What can employers do about it?

Me Too

As far as sexual harassment goes, the technology and telecommunications industry comes in second only to the media in terms of the number of incidents experienced by workers.

According to a report last year from New York-based think tank the Center for Talent Innovation entitled ‘What #MeToo Means for Corporate America”, a huge 37% of women in tech have been sexually harassed by a colleague compared to 12% of men. (In the media, the figures rise to 41% of women and 22% of men respectively.)

Such data has also been backed up by a seemingly endless stream of negative headlines recently about this kind of behaviour. For example, in April this year, it came to light that Microsoft was investigating dozens of complaints of discrimination and harassment from female employees, following the leak of an internal company email chain showing just how widespread the discontent was.

A Google staff member, who helped organise walkouts in November last year because of protests over the alleged overly-lenient treatment of executives accused of sexual harassment, meanwhile, quit in June. She claimed that she had been subject to management retaliation for her actions, which made it difficult to do her job.

Elsewhere, half a dozen games developers have been publicly accused of a range of abusive behaviours by former female colleagues, one of which includes allegations of rape.

In what appears to be a bid to try to fix the situation and avoid sexual harassment claims in future, high profile companies ranging from Google and Facebook to Airbnb have recently announced revisions to their dating policies. In all cases, employees now have one shot, and one shot only, at asking co-workers out on a date – with the proviso that vague responses such as “I’m washing my hair that night” count as a “no”.

The big question though is whether this kind of approach, while undoubtedly well-intentioned, can ever be enough? According to Meredith Graham, Senior Vice President of the Culture and People Experience at managed services provider Ensono, the answer is another “no”. She explains:

With dating policies of that type, you’re drawing a black and white line to try and prevent any issues, but most sexual harassment claims don’t typically start in those circumstances. So we haven’t implemented a policy like that and I’d hesitate to say we’d do it because I believe it’s more education and awareness that’s needed really.

Trouble spots

In Graham’s experience of working across a number of industry sectors, the main trouble spots are less to do with people feeling pressured to go on dates and more to do with individuals crossing a line, for example, when attending conferences, going out for drinks after work or working late. As she says:

It’s not about having dinner when both parties know they’re on a date. It’s more about one person thinking that certain behaviour is appropriate and the other doesn’t, or they have no idea they were meant to be on a date and it turns out to be a bit of a shock.

Indeed, Valerie Nichols, Executive Consultant at learning and development company Hemsley Fraser, points to three key categories in which problems tend to manifest.

The first is “egregious behaviour”, which most people agree is “inappropriate and deplorable”.

The second is when women, or men, move into an industry that has been traditionally dominated by another gender. In this scenario, they are often met with suspicion and made to feel excluded.

The third stems from the fact that workforces are becoming more diverse at all levels, which means there is a wider range of cultural sensitivities to accommodate than in the past. The issue with this situation is that individuals of different ages, genders, heritages and backgrounds define sexual harassment in different ways and have “not always quite learned to get along with each other”, Nichols says.

For example, she cites a study by YouGov, which found that younger women in the UK were more likely to say they had been harassed over the last five years than older ones. Although the report indicates that younger women are more likely to be targeted, it also points to a strong correlation between a woman’s age and whether or not she considers wolf-whistling, for instance, to be acceptable - with younger women being much more likely to feel it is not. As a result, Nichols says:

One of the reasons that the tech sector may look worse than others is that not only has it traditionally been male-dominated, but it is also generally younger people who work there. They tend to be more comfortable talking about the issue and are generally highly educated, so they are often more willing to speak up. Younger women are also more likely to identify behaviour as sexual harassment than older ones. So all in all, it creates a perfect storm.

As to how employers can best go about trying to prevent sexual harassment occurring in the first place, it is vital, in Graham’s opinion, to create a culture that is not just “open, honest and transparent”, but also one in which “actions speak louder the words”. She explains:

We’ve all heard stories where there was pervasive harassment by high profile people that others were afraid to challenge, or who are still there despite complaints. So to create a culture that feels safe, it’s important to take appropriate action - which means having someone investigate the claims - quickly and be seen to be even-handed in doing so.

Creating a respectful environment

Because many people are afraid of retaliation, it also important to make clear that their complaints will be treated confidentially and fairly and exceptions will not be made for existing or rising stars. As Graham says:

It’s really about education and awareness and keeping the conversation going, so that people know this kind of behaviour won’t be tolerated. The danger always is that things can spread if you don’t close them down early on.

Silvia Sage, Programme Director at Corporate Learning Solutions, agrees, but adds that a key secret to success in her view is to create a respectful environment based on positive values, where each individual is valued for their contribution, no matter what their gender, race or background. While devising a code of conduct for a respectful workplace can prove useful here, the most important thing of all is to engage leaders in the process. She explains:

A culture is set at the top of an organisation and bad behaviour filters down. So there must be active sponsorship of cultural change, and leaders need to role model the behaviour they expect to see. This means it’s important to explore the behaviours that are acceptable or not and to clarify what this means in practice right down to the fundamentals, for example, listening to each other without interruption.

Another important consideration is opening up safe forums for dialogue to help people understand what constitutes suitable behaviour that does not make others uncomfortable or inhibit them from doing their work effectively. As Nichols says:

In my experience, if you want people to change their behaviour, you don’t do it by making them feel bad. Most people aren’t evil and, despite the headlines, are well-intentioned. So they don’t intend to harass others, but they do lack understanding of their background, cultural issues and the like. As a result, it’s about raising awareness so people think twice before doing or saying something inappropriate.

The problem is that if such matters are not addressed and discussions not held, spin-off problems can end up being created elsewhere. Nichols explains:

While there’s a clear, established link between sexism and sexual harassment, one of the things that employers need to be careful about is not going too far and trying to avoid claims by handicapping people. For example, some people are saying they no longer know where the line is and so won’t talk to that person or go on a client trip alone with them, but that can end up hampering another’s career. Because the issue is that if you don’t have any trust in an organisation, nothing works.

My take

One of the many reasons we are hearing so much more about sexual harassment as an issue than we did in the past is that its definition has broadened as younger people in particular start to define and redefine what constitutes appropriate behaviour.

As a result, I would tend to agree with the wise words of Valerie Nichols when she says:

My advice is to upgrade from the golden rule of ‘do to others as you would like things done to you’ to the platinum rule of ‘treat others as they would like to be treated’.