On the Basis of Sex is the new Mimi Leder film that tells the story of a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Notorious RBG to her fans), and how in the 1970s she took on the US legal system to fight for equal rights for women. It arrives this December in time for the 25th anniversary of Ginsberg’s Supreme Court tenure and stars Felicity Jones as the young RBG. In the trailer, we hear Jones’ Ginsburg say, “Protests are important, but changing the culture means nothing if the law doesn’t change… if the law differentiates on the basis of sex, how will woman and men ever be equal.”
It’s ironic that this topic is getting screen time given the current political and social climate. When Tarana Burke founded the “me too” movement in 2006 with the goal of assisting survivors of sexual violence, particularly young women of color from low wealth communities, find pathways to healing, I’m sure she never imagined such a future. Fast forward 11 years and we now have a global #MeToo movement that has brought millions out marching and blasted off the lid on the murky and sordid world of workplace sexual harassment.
We now have confirmation of what many suspected, that the workplace is rife with examples of inappropriate sexual behavior. In one survey, 81% of women and 43% of men said they had experienced some form of sexual harassment during their lifetime. The report also asked people where they encounter this harassment, and 38% of women and 13% of men said it happened in the workplace.
Other research, a Washington Post-ABC News Poll, found that 64% of Americans feel sexual harassment in the workplace is a serious problem, with two-thirds of Americans saying that men who sexually harass female co-workers usually get away with it. If you think this will change with the next generation, consider this – 41% of women under 40 said they’d received an unwanted sexual advance from male colleagues versus 25% of women over 40.
Now that the subject has moved into the spotlight, we must ask how employers are reacting? Or better yet, is the law finally catching up with the times and employers are now legally responsible for ensuring a safe workplace? Failure to make such necessary changes will make all the condemnations and denouncements merely lip service. I’m inclined to concur with Ginsburg, that unless the law reflects this new awareness and the demand for accountability and consequences, the marches and the protests will amount to little more than news headlines.
What has changed?
So far this year 32 states have introduced over 125 pieces of legislation on sexual harassment and sexual harassment policies. Individual states introduced a range of legislation that covers everything from mandatory training to non-disclosure agreements. For example, all employers in New York City must provide sexual-harassment prevention training to all workers. These employers also must adopt a written sexual-harassment prevention policy and distribute it to employees. The Chicago City Council passed a “Hands Off Pants On” ordinance that requires all hotels in the city to adopt a panic button system and an anti-sexual harassment policy. California is considering two bills that aim to expand the state’s training mandate to include non-manager employees. If passed, it will mean most California employers will be required to provide training to their entire workforce within the state every two years, and new employees would require training within six months.
In short, the law is changing.
Changes in the workplace
A recent SHRM series on the Harassment-Free Workplace found that one in three executives has changed their behavior in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which is encouraging. Ninety-four percent of HR professionals report their company has a policy to protect workers against sexual harassment and 72% of US employees are happy with their employer’s efforts to stop sexual harassment. However, more than one-third of Americans still believe their workplace fosters sexual harassment, which brings me to the crux of this problem. We can see that the law is changing, that employers and executives are aware of the problem and are making attempts to address the issue. But progress is slow.
Speeding up Progress
To speed up progress, we need to hit people and organizations where it hurts – the bottom line. I believe this is the only real way we can affect real change is by negatively impacting financial status.
Think about it.
- Fox News paid out $85 million to settle multiple sexual harassment allegations including $13 million to a group of women so they would not pursue harassment cases against Bill O’Reilly.
- Uber will pay 56 current and former employees about $33,900 each, a total of $1.9 million, to settle their claims of gender discrimination, harassment and hostile work environment. In addition to the $1.9 million, another $5.1 million will be divided among more than 480 workers.
- US film and TV studio The Weinstein Company, whose ex-chairman Harvey Weinstein was accused of sexual harassment and assault, filed for
- Bikram yoga’s founding company has filed for bankruptcy amid more than $16 million of debt following years of sexual harassment lawsuits against its founder, Bikram Choudhury.
- In 2017, the EEOC obtained more than $398 million for victims of workplace discrimination through voluntary resolutions and litigation.
- Employees at large companies who perceive bias are nearly three times as likely to be disengaged at work. That kind of clock-punching is costly. Gallup estimates that active disengagement costs U.S. companies $450 billion to $550 billion per year.
- Employees who perceive bias are more than three times likely to say that they’re planning to leave their current jobs within the year.
- Employees who perceive bias are more likely to say that they’ve withheld ideas and market solutions over the previous six months.
But it isn’t just about fines, damage to brand reputation or risk of bankruptcy.
Rebecca Greenfield and Janet Paskin wrote an excellent article for Bloomberg about the true cost of women’s silence. One study they discuss looked at the effect sexual harassment has on women’s careers and found that women who were sexually harassed at work are six and a half times more likely to leave their job. Greenfield and Paskin go on to say that, “The same researchers asked 1,000 men and women if they had experienced unwanted touching, offensive jokes, or other behaviors that could be considered workplace harassment. Among the female respondents who said they’d experienced unwanted touching or at least two other, nonphysical behaviors, 80% said they left their jobs within two years. When women do leave, they tend to land in positions that pay less, not more. The occupations with the highest rates of harassment also happen to be the most male-dominated, highest-paying fields. Women are seeking out spaces where they’re less likely to get harassed, which means they land in less lucrative fields or positions—a negative economic impact that persists through the rest of their working years.”
Also, there’s the price of missed opportunity that has its origins in having a homogenous executive team. A study by management consultancy firm McKinsey showed that companies in the top quartile for gender diversity on their executive teams were 21% more likely to experience above-average profitability. The study also found that companies with the most ethnically diverse executive teams—not only with respect to absolute representation but also of variety or mix of ethnicities —are 33% more likely to outperform their peers on profitability.
The numbers don’t lie. Sexual harassment is costly. Regardless of how you feel about the subject, it just does not make good business sense not to do everything possible to eradicate sexual harassment from your organization. Soon the law will catch up, and we will see a very different landscape. As we wait for that to happen, I think the cost alone makes sexual harassment or a workplace that tolerates sexual harassment bad for business.
Skillsoft’s Compliance solution is about changing mindsets and behaviors with training. With over 500 risk topics across 32 languages, we provide one of the largest global libraries of legal coverage, ethics training, and workplace safety training. We have a suite of harassment prevention courses. Discover for yourself just what’s on offer and how we can help your organization be the inclusive and safe workplace your employees deserve.
Tara O’Sullivan is the Chief Marketing Officer at Skillsoft.