Everyone Missed A Key Reason There Are So Few Women Leaders

Researchers are only starting to consider how sexual harassment keeps women down.
Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. All the Republican members of that committee are male.
Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee last week. All the Republican members of that committee are male.
Tom Williams/POOL New / Reuters

Why aren’t there more women in charge? The question feels particularly urgent right now. In the business world, the number of female CEOs is actually falling. In the political world, well, things are not great.

For years, researchers have mostly pinned the blame on women themselves. Motherhood derails women’s careers, according to one argument. Or maybe women aren’t ambitious enough; they need to “lean in.” The New York Times recently said male-dominated boardrooms are the problem. Sexism does get highlighted as an explanation. Same with microaggressions.

Yet as so many women have come forward to tell stories of sexual harassment thanks to the Me Too movement, it’s become painfully clear that something else is going on. And it’s not women’s fault.

Sexual harassment plays a major role in keeping women down, but for all these years researchers have barely considered this as a factor.

“I can’t help but wonder if this has been the elephant in the room all along,” said labor economist Laura Sherbin, who studies the lack of women at the top as co-president at the Center for Talent Innovation, a think tank and consultancy that works on diversity issues.

Sherbin said her eyes were opened to the issue after working on a comprehensive study of sexual harassment that her group initiated in the wake of Me Too. “I think a lot of people who have been doing research on the topic didn’t truly understand this was happening,” she said. “We didn’t realize we had to act.”

It’s not hard to find examples of how harassment disrupts women’s careers. Plenty of women have left who could have one day led.

Susan Fowler was a promising young engineer at Uber who left the company after her complaints about harassment were ignored. She also left the industry and is now an editor at The New York Times.

Whitney Wolfe said she was sexually harassed by her co-founders at Tinder. She went on to launch her own company, Bumble.

A young trader at the ANZ banking group was sexually harassed by her boss. She now sells real estate. Saleswomen who worked at Monster Energy spoke up about mistreatment and were fired. A brilliant law clerk was sexually harassed by a judge, left the legal industry entirely, changed her name and became a novelist.

To truly get a sense of how sexual harassment affects potential women leaders, a survey of graduates of Harvard Business School would be a perfect place to start. The school has churned out more CEOs of public companies than any other business school.

Harvard Business does poll its graduates to see how their careers progress. And its survey has even drilled down into gender differences. Yet only recently have the Harvard survey’s authors realized that they need to ask about sexual harassment.

“It wasn’t on our radar,” said Colleen Ammerman, director of Harvard Business School’s Gender Initiative, who worked on the study. Considering the omission in light of Me Too, “we were shocked at ourselves,” she said. “It’s not something we really thought of.”

“I think a lot of people who have been doing research on the topic didn’t truly understand this was happening.”

- Laura Sherbin, co-president, Center for Talent Innovation

In 2012, when they first conducted the Life and Leadership study of graduates, researchers were interested in learning why highly educated women leave the workforce. They asked about work-family conflict and time devoted to work. They also found that women took on different kinds of jobs than men did ― often the kind of work that’s less likely to lead to the corner office. But nothing on harassment.

In 2015, they sent out a second round of questions to graduates and again didn’t ask anything about harassment.

Now Ammerman and her colleagues are getting ready to do a third wave of questions. This time, they plan to delve into the issue. The survey, scheduled for later this fall, will look at how people have coped with harassment on the job and how it’s influenced decisions about their careers.

Rachel Thomas, who co-founded LeanIn.org with Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, said her organization has started looking at harassment. The group included the phenomenon in its women-in-the-workplace research this year.

“I think sexual harassment is the sharp ugly tip of the spear,” Thomas told HuffPost, noting that there’s much more going on in the workplace that also holds women back. “Microaggressions, all those things that happen to women on a daily basis that are undermining and disorienting. Being mistaken for someone more junior than you are, being spoken over in a meeting.”

When Anne-Marie Slaughter was starting her career in the 1970s, women in the workplace were fighting not to be viewed as sex objects.

“I think we thought, ‘OK, we did that part and now we’re moving on,’” Slaughter told HuffPost recently, marveling at how the conversation has returned to the same territory.

Slaughter created a stir in 2012 with an essay and then a book about how work-life challenges keep women from “having it all.”

If she had to write the book now, even in light of Me Too, she said, it still wouldn’t be about harassment. “There are two huge obstacles to women’s advancement,” said Slaughter, who is now president of New America, a think tank. Harassment and discrimination is one, and the struggle between care-work and work outside the home is the other.

Slaughter’s focus was on the latter. Her organization, however, did publish a comprehensive report on harassment last month.

Victims of sexual harassment typically lose their jobs for one of two reasons, explains Frank Dobbin, a professor of sociology at Harvard who’s studied the effectiveness of anti-harassment training. “Either they quit, or they try and address the problem and face retaliation ― and then leave.”

“If all the important meetings have fifty percent women, none of them happen in strip clubs.”

- Frank Dobbin, Harvard sociology professor

There’s little systematic data on how harassment affects attrition, but Dobbin and others point to one study published in the American Sociological Review in 2012 that found 80 percent of young women who report being sexually harassed in their jobs leave those jobs. (The rate is 50 percent for those who aren’t harassed.)

The researchers examined young adults in their 20s and defined harassment as unwanted touching or hostile remarks that the person found offensive or that made them uncomfortable.

Women left not just because of the harassment but also because of how employers responded to it ― often by discounting women’s complaints or alienating them from their colleagues.

“Several women talked about how ‘it’s not worth my energy to change the culture, I’d rather move into a different type of career where this isn’t going to happen,’” said Heather McLaughlin, a sociology professor at Oklahoma State University who co-authored the 2012 study.

And that’s doubly unfortunate, because the strategies companies use to combat harassment haven’t been successful. Indeed, according to Dobbin’s research, a lot of the current thinking on how to fight harassment ― mainly policies crafted to protect businesses from litigation ― actually winds up forcing victims out of companies.

The best way to combat harassment? The answer is simple, Dobbin writes in a recent article. “Hire and promote more women.”

The logic is easy to follow. “If all the important meetings have fifty percent women, none of them happen in strip clubs,” Dobbin told HuffPost.

So more women leaders leads to less harassment, but in the meantime harassment is leading more women to leave companies. It’s a pernicious cycle that researchers are only beginning to understand.

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