While #MeToo continues to promote a wave of social media activity and much-needed awareness of sexual harassment and misconduct, a new study by researchers at business and leadership consultancy VitalSmarts shows little significant change—and some unintended consequences.
Attitudes are changing—but are behaviors following suit?
The study of more than 1,100 people found that while nearly 3 out of 4 say the movement has inspired them to speak up in the future if they witness or experience harassment, when it comes to actually blowing a whistle, only 34 percent are willing to address unwanted behavior when they experience it or see it.
And when it comes to conduct, only 31 percent have observed anything more than small changes to avoid gestures that could be seen as harassment or misconduct—leaving the large majority to operate business as usual.
The online survey also looked at the differences #MeToo has had on men and women
It found some positive change and momentum to build on, as well as some unnerving lack of action at the organizational level.
According to the study, women believe sexual harassment and misconduct is prevalent and as a result, some are speaking out. Specifically, since #MeToo began, 28 percent have shared a personal experience of harassment or assault. However, half of the women in the study (48 percent) have an incident of harassment they still haven’t shared. They attribute their silence to a few factors: it happened too long ago or at a different employer, or bringing it up would be painful and take too much time and effort.
The men in the study report behavior that confirms the prevalence of harassment. Specifically, 48 percent say they’ve done something in the past that might be labeled as sexual harassment or misconduct today and 18 percent wish they could apologize for past behavior. And yet, since #MeToo began, only 9 percent of men have actually spoken up and admitted to some kind of sexual misconduct.
Surprised by the lack of behavior change resulting from #MeToo—despite the clear prevalence of harassment in the workplace—the research team, composed of Emily Gregory, VP of Product Development at VitalSmarts, and Candace Bertotti, MPA and Senior Master Trainer at VitalSmarts, along with their colleagues David Maxfield and Joseph Grenny, bestselling authors and founders of VitalSmarts, took a deeper look at what influences workplace behavior—both actual conduct and people’s willingness to speak up.
According to the study, the three factors that have the greatest impact on conduct—whether people are more careful to avoid behaviors that could be seen as sexual harassment or misconduct—include:
Confidence in the system
Witnessing tangible changes at work that increase confidence the system will respond appropriately when people speak up about harassment. (22 percent agree)
Additional workplace training
Learning skills for how to speak up about past or current abuses in the workplace (beyond traditional sexual harassment training). (20 percent agree)
A plan or precedent for speaking up
Having an idea of what to do if they see or experience sexual harassment. (45 percent agree)
The three factors that have the greatest impact on whether people are more likely to speak up and address sexual harassment or misconduct also include confidence in the system and additional workplace training. The third factor was:
Inspiration/motivation to speak up
Hearing people speak their truth regarding sexual harassment inspires them to speak up if they witness or experience similar concerns. (48 percent agree)
Through a step-wise multiple regression of these factors, the overwhelming finding is that improvements in behavior (less harassment and more addressing of harassment) depend on organizations taking formal action. Specifically:
- Organizations need to provide training that goes beyond traditional harassment courses.
- Organizations need to make changes that increase confidence in how sexual harassment and misconduct is handled.
The researchers say that in the absence of these organizational actions, the impact of #MeToo is mixed.
“It’s clear, #MeToo is generally supported and has created positive momentum in victim’s willingness to speak up,” said Gregory, in a news release. “However, without action or support from corporate America, #MeToo has had little impact on actual behavior in the workplace. To turn #MeToo from a moment into a movement, this needs to change and change quickly.”
Recent events at Nike illustrate both the problem and the promise uncovered in the study. Because women at Nike did not believe they could stop the harassment they were experiencing—despite many speaking up or leaving as a result of misconduct—they spearheaded a covert survey to document the breadth and depth of the problem within the organization. It wasn’t until senior leaders saw the results that they finally took action. Six executives have left and Nike is now rethinking how it handles harassment complaints. This is the promise of the movement.
The research team uncovered another mixed impact of the movement: discrepancy in people’s perceptions of #MeToo leading to negative overreactions that will impact equal opportunity.
They found that while the majority of respondents (63 percent) believe #MeToo to be a healthy movement, 1 in 5 feel the opposite—that #MeToo is unhealthy.
Those who favor the movement feel the awareness it generates is making the workplace safer for victims and potential victims of sexual harassment. While those who view it negatively feel the workplace is less safe for the “potentially accused.” These respondents assert that #MeToo has made it less safe to mentor or coach members of the opposite sex, less safe to admit past or present harm and less safe to express genuine romantic interest in the workplace.
The researchers believe this trend is important to monitor. It may represent an overreaction or backlash to the #MeToo movement.
“The survey found that 65 percent of men report feeling less psychologically safe to mentor or coach a member of the opposite sex,” says Bertotti. “This type of reaction limits equal opportunity in the workplace.”
The research team agrees that while #MeToo has started a sea change in attitudes towards sexual harassment, in order for real change to occur in the workplace, organizations needs to provide skills, increase confidence and monitor a knee-jerk overreaction that has the potential to limit opportunity for women.
“We applaud #MeToo,” says Gregory. “But let’s not overlook what social science has taught us: new social norms require new skills and systems, not just new attitudes. We’re at the beginning of a positive and long-awaited shift in society and the workplace. To cement this movement, it’s time to pass the baton of change from social media to corporate America.”