The Globe’s bimonthly report on research from business schools.
The rise of #MeToo and Time’s Up in our collective consciousness has encouraged women by the thousands to step forward to share stories of being cat-called, groped and propositioned on the job.
Together, these movements have helped to topple some of the most egregious offenders from their positions of authority and brought to light the sheer scale of sexual harassment in the everyday workplace setting.
But for Ajnesh Prasad, business professor and Canada Research Chair with Royal Roads University’s business school in Victoria, they’ve also highlighted a need to dig deeper into the organizational culture that helps enable unwanted behaviours.
To that end, Dr. Prasad and colleague Dulini Fernando of the University of Warwick in Britain have recently completed a timely study that looks at what they call “the subtle mechanisms by which organizations maintain the status quo.”
The study, which has been accepted for publication in the academic journal Human Relations, began in 2016 and examines the role of “third-party actors” in silencing people who start to voice their discontent. These are the people who, by their actions (or lack thereof), have participated in suppressing the voices of discontented employees. They include human resource officers, managers, and professional colleagues, among others.
The researchers interviewed 31 early- to mid-career female academics working at business schools in Britain about insulting, hostile and degrading attitudes, as well as any unwanted sexual attention and sexual coercion they’ve experienced in their workplace because of their gender.
In each case, participants were asked to describe events as vividly as possible and whether they stayed silent about their experiences.
The researchers were surprised by the answers they received.
All the women reported some level of harassment, from sexist remarks and harassment during pregnancy and after giving birth to gender-based bullying and sexually motivated advances. And, contrary to what researchers anticipated, they all shared their experiences with someone at work – whether it was a manager, HR officer or more senior professional colleague.
In each case, the women said they were persuaded to drop the issue and move on.
For instance, one woman, identified as Paula in the study, described how a female HR manager dismissed her complaint of a senior colleague’s unwanted advances as “hardly a crime.” In addition, the manager “also rather patronizingly offered to speak to the accused on Paula’s behalf to clear any possible misunderstanding and make the environment more pleasant for her in the future.” Paula was left feeling humiliated and unwilling to talk further about what happened.
In another other case noted in the study, a woman known as Marsha said she was advised by well-meaning colleagues to not complain about unwanted sexual attention to avoid being known as a “troublemaker.”
“To be really honest, I am scared of being that person who people are wary of dealing with – so I don’t know what to do,” Marsha said, according to the study.
Women also told researchers they were repeatedly told by organizational authorities to “trust the system” to resolve their complaint.
Dr. Prasad says the research reveals important lessons for victims of sex-based harassment, wherever they may work.
Critically, people who have the courage to disclose incidents of sex-based harassment need to be aware of the reality that they may be silenced by various actors who are invested in protecting the interests of the organization.
“Accordingly, they need to be prepared to proceed through the often-difficult process of pursuing their complaint with conviction,” he says.
Second, he recommends that victims seek outside support from a union representative, industry ombudsman or relevant source who is not subject of the organization’s authority.
“Such actors can offer much-needed support, including providing victims with the fullest scope of their options,” he says.
Dr. Prasad and Dr. Fernando are preparing to continue the study. The next step is to interview HR officers and line managers in an effort to better understand how they deal with individuals who make complaints relating to sex-based harassment.
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