The ef­fects of sex­ual-ha­rass­ment scan­dals

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - GLOBE CAREERS - CLAIRE CAIN MILLER

Women in some work­places are be­ing de­prived of a chance at pro­mo­tion as men avoid one-on-one con­tact over fear of ac­cu­sa­tions

In Sil­i­con Val­ley, some male in­vestors have de­clined oneon-one meet­ings with women, or resched­uled them from restau­rants to con­fer­ence rooms. On Wall Street, cer­tain se­nior men have tried to avoid closed­door meet­ings with ju­nior women. And in TV news, some male ex­ec­u­tives have scrupu­lously minded their words in con­ver­sa­tions with fe­male tal­ent.

In in­ter­views, the men de­scribe a height­ened cau­tion be­cause of re­cent sex­ual-ha­rass­ment cases, and they worry that one ac­cu­sa­tion, or mis­un­der­stood com­ment, could end their ca­reers. But their ac­tions af­fect women’s ca­reers, too – po­ten­tially de­priv­ing them of the kind of re­la­tion­ships that lead to pro­mo­tions or in­vest­ments.

It’s an un­in­tended con­se­quence of a sea­son of sex scan­dals. Re­search shows that build­ing gen­uine re­la­tion­ships with se­nior peo­ple is per­haps the most im­por­tant con­trib­u­tor to ca­reer ad­vance­ment. In some of­fices it’s known as hav­ing a rabbi; re­searchers call it spon­sor­ship. Un­like men­tors, who give ad­vice and are of­ten for­mally as­signed, spon­sors know and re­spect peo­ple enough that they are will­ing to find op­por­tu­ni­ties for them, and ad­vo­cate and fight for them.

But women are less likely to build such re­la­tion­ships, in part be­cause both se­nior men and ju­nior women worry that a re­la­tion­ship will be mis­read by oth­ers. At ev­ery level, more men than women say they in­ter­act with se­nior lead­ers at least once a week, ac­cord­ing to re­search by McKin­sey and the non-profit Lean In. This im­bal­ance is a ma­jor rea­son women stall at lower lev­els of com­pa­nies, ac­cord­ing to a va­ri­ety of re­search.

“We found that they avoided one-on-one con­tact be­cause they were fear­ful of gos­sip, or the sus­pi­cion that a stand­out fe­male on a team is sleep­ing with the team leader,” said Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and chief ex­ec­u­tive of the Cen­ter for Tal­ent In­no­va­tion, a re­search firm that has stud­ied spon­sor­ship.

She noted that spon­sors “have to spend some cap­i­tal and take a risk on the up-and-com­ing per­son, and you sim­ply don’t do that un­less you know them and trust them.” But th­ese re­la­tion­ships are cru­cial, she said, for “get­ting from the mid­dle to the top.”

Cer­tain work­places have be­come more tense in re­cent months, af­ter high-pro­file sex­ual-ha­rass­ment cases at Fox News, in ven­ture cap­i­tal and else­where, and af­ter the vul­gar com­ments about women by Don­ald Trump that emerged dur­ing the pres­i­den­tial cam­paign. Most re­cently, ac­cu­sa­tions against movie mogul Har­vey We­in­stein caused him to be fired.

The So­ci­ety for Hu­man Re­source Man­age­ment, an in­dus­try group, said it saw a spike in ques­tions from mem­bers about sex­ual ha­rass­ment in March – when cases at Uber, Fox News and mil­i­tary acad­e­mies were in the news – and in Au­gust, when ha­rass­ment sur­faced again at Fox, in Sil­i­con Val­ley and else­where.

In some cases, the height­ened aware­ness has im­proved peo­ple’s be­hav­iour. “Peo­ple are more sen­si­tive to how they con­duct them­selves, be­cause they’ve seen what can hap­pen,” said a male ex­ec­u­tive in the news and en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, who spoke anony­mously be­cause of the same height­ened cau­tion over the topic that is in the air in some work­places. “That’s pre­sented a bet­ter work­ing en­vi­ron­ment.”

But else­where, men have be­gun avoid­ing solo in­ter­ac­tions with women al­to­gether. In Austin, a city of­fi­cial was for­mally rep­ri­manded last month for re­fus­ing to meet with fe­male em­ploy­ees, af­ter he ended reg­u­lar men­tor­ing lunches with one.

Some tech in­vestors have taken sim­i­lar steps. “A big chill came across Sil­i­con Val­ley in the wake of all th­ese sto­ries, and peo­ple are hy­per­aware and scared of be­hav­ing wrongly, so I think they’re draw­ing all kinds of pa­ram­e­ters,” said a ven­ture cap­i­tal­ist who spoke anony­mously for the same rea­son.

Some are avoid­ing solo meet­ings with fe­male en­trepreneurs, po­ten­tial re­cruits and those who ask for an in­for­ma­tional or net­work­ing meet­ing.

“Be­fore, you might have said, ‘Of course I would do that, and I will es­pe­cially do it for mi­nori­ties, in­clud­ing women in Sil­i­con Val­ley,’ ” the in­vestor said. “Now you can­cel it be­cause you have huge rep­u­ta­tional risk all of a sud­den.”

Some­times women avoid solo meet­ings with men who have made them un­com­fort­able or have bad rep­u­ta­tions, as when fe­male ex­ec­u­tives brought col­leagues to meet­ings with We­in­stein.

It has not hap­pened in ev­ery work­place, of course, and de­pends in part on com­pany cul­ture and em­ploy­ees’ trust in hu­man re­sources to ap­pro­pri­ately deal with ha­rass­ment. In in­ter­views with peo­ple across in­dus­tries, many said in­ter­act­ing with mem­bers of the op­po­site sex was a non-is­sue. Peo­ple were warier in jobs that em­pha­sized ap­pear­ance, as with cer­tain restau­rants or TV net­works; in male-dom­i­nated in­dus­tries such as fi­nance; and in jobs that in­volve stark power im­bal­ances, such as doc­tors or in­vestors.

Dr. Mukund Ko­man­duri, 50, an ortho­pe­dic sur­geon with a prac­tice out­side Chicago, said he avoids be­ing alone with fe­male col­leagues, par­tic­u­larly those he does not know well or who are sub­or­di­nates.

“I’m very cau­tious about it be­cause my liveli­hood is on the line,” he said. “If some­one in your hospi­tal says you had in­ap­pro­pri­ate con­tact with this wo­man, you get sus­pended for an in­ves­ti­ga­tion, and your life is over. Does that ever leave you?”

He men­tioned a hospi­tal col­league who lost his job be­cause of ha­rass­ment al­le­ga­tions. “That in­di­vid­ual has cre­ated a hy­per­sen­si­tive at­mos­phere for ev­ery other physi­cian,” he said. “We ba­si­cally stand 10 feet away from ev­ery­one we know.”

Even be­fore the re­cent at­ten­tion on ha­rass­ment, the prac­tice of avoid­ing solo meet­ings with col­leagues of the op­po­site sex was not un­com­mon. It could mean not shar­ing in cabs, travel, lunches, projects or get-to­geth­ers over cof­fee, and not meet­ing be­hind closed doors.

Nearly two-thirds of men and women say peo­ple should take ex­tra cau­tion around mem­bers of the op­po­site sex at work, and about a quar­ter think pri­vate work meet­ings with col­leagues of the op­po­site sex are in­ap­pro­pri­ate, ac­cord­ing to a poll con­ducted in May by Morn­ing Con­sult for The New York Times.

The ef­fect on women’s ca­reers is quan­tifi­able, re­search has found.

Women with spon­sors are more likely to get chal­leng­ing as­sign­ments and raises and to say they are sat­is­fied with their ca­reer progress, ac­cord­ing to data from the Cen­ter for Tal­ent In­no­va­tion. Yet, 64 per cent of se­nior men and 50 per cent of ju­nior women avoid solo in­ter­ac­tions be­cause of the risk of ru­mors about their mo­tives, ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey by the cen­tre.

Good spon­sors also give can­did, dif­fi­cult feed­back, and women are less likely than men to re­ceive it, McKin­sey and Lean In found.

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