How women in leadership roles can help curb sexual harassment in the workplace

Balancing power is the way forward. More women in leadership roles can balance the scales and help us address the issue of sexual harassment at the workplace.

Women are not new to leadership; they have been in the seat of political power from time immemorial. To mention just a few, Cleopatra, Queen Elizabeth, Rani Laxmibai, Indira Gandhi, Golda Meir, Benazir Bhutto, Angela Merkel have ruled with great panache and political acumen.

In the corporate world, Indira Nooyi, Marillyn Hewson, Mary Barra, Ginni Rometty, Susan Wojcicki, Sheryl Sandberg and closer home they include eminent names such as Kalpana Morparia, Zarin Daruwala, Kiran Majmudar Shaw, Vani Kola, Kaku Nakhate, Ashu Suyash, Anita Dongre, Falguni Nayar, Schauna Chauhan, among others.

However, when you look at women’s representation in leadership roles, over a period of time, the average is extremely low and scattered over many centuries. Women are still significantly outnumbered in almost all aspects of lives, including the board room. A gender diverse board better represents the company and helps bring in a diverse range of opinions.

Though gender diversity at the board level has steadily improved in the last few years across the world, it is still a long way to go for equalisation in terms of female representation at the top.

While women’s rise to leadership roles is a sign of societal progress, it is not bereft of challenges.

According to a research by ScienceDirect, once women are in leadership roles, they are often perceived to be less deserving in comparison to their male counterparts. This can lead to a reduction in cooperation and negative subordinate behaviour towards women leaders. This is one of the reasons why women at the top are likely to face a wide variety of negative experiences including sexual harassment, discrimination, microaggressions, unconscious bias etc.

Sexual harassment is a form of sexual victimisation with its roots in sexism and power dynamics. It continues to be one of the most common forms of workplace misconduct. 

A report by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey and Company titled Women in Workplaces, concluded that 55 percent of women in senior leadership positions experienced sexual harassment at work. Being the ‘’only one’’ in these top positions exposes women to worse experiences than if they were “one of many”.

Further, the report also states that women who are the “onlys” are more likely to face unprofessional and demeaning remarks, and almost twice as likely to have been sexually harassed.

To fix this, organisations need to address power in numbers, not just in hierarchy and authority. Female construction workers, firefighters, miners, and police officers are frequently harassed, in part because they are outnumbered.

So are women in journalism, academia, advertising, and the tech industry. The answer is to bring more women into the leadership ranks. In workplaces and industries where women are well represented in the core jobs, harassment is significantly less likely to occur.

Why it happens?

Unequal power relations

Hierarchy is a factor that increases the odds of harassment that occurs. Most organisations are hierarchical but what is important is how skewed the power imbalances are, among different people in the system. Sage journals ‘Power and Perspective Not taken’ shows that having power enables people to do as they please, without taking other people’s perspectives into consideration.

This power also shields them from punishment and criticism of any sort, leading to a corrupt work environment where they feel it is okay to behave badly and even engage in socially inappropriate or sexual behaviour.

In contrast, powerlessness and vulnerability are associated with embarrassment and sensitivity. In this context, people who are higher up the ladder may be more inclined to behave recklessly, while subordinates at the lower end of the hierarchy are less able to push back.

It is the most vulnerable women among us, those who hold lower-level jobs, those with less education, or those who have been victimised before, that are harassed often. These vulnerable victims never come forward due to the fear of losing their jobs.

The case of Harvey Weinstein is a prime example of how power and money can be used to exploit others, knowing they can get away with it.  

Gender bias and stereotypes

There are no problems associated with female achievement and there certainly is not a lack of qualified women to fill leadership roles. Women have not just caught up, but in some countries, surpassed men in educational achievements.

The problem arises when women try to balance family and work because the caregiving responsibilities lie with them due to the way our society is constructed.

Because women put many more hours into such household activities than men, it greatly disadvantages them at the workplace. Hence, it is unrealistic to expect gender equality if workplaces demand the same time commitment from women and men.

Personal values, outdated traditional views about women and men are some of the factors that contribute to a gender bias at the workplace. Gender biases run deep in our society and it is usually within the context of workplace discrimination of women. Gender biases and stereotyping also lead to social and financial implications and are signs of male supremacy which all reside at the core of the problem of sexual harassment.

In a 2013 survey by PewSocialTrends, it was established that mothers were more likely to experience career interruptions due to attending to their families’ needs. This is one of the reasons why women do not tend to progress to leadership roles easily and the persistence of unequal power balance continues, leading to unacceptable workplace behaviour by men.

Solution – promote more women into leadership positions

A raft of studies have proven repeatedly that harassment flourishes in workplaces where women have little power and men dominate in management. The toleration and sanction of sexualised treatment of workers in male-dominated management teams can lead to a culture of complicity. Reducing power imbalances can change the workplace culture because women are less likely than men to harass.

To address and resolve the root causes of sexual harassment at the workplace is to put an end to the toxic values of misogynistic work cultures still prevalent today.

Male privilege residing in high perches leads to sexism that prevent women from shattering the glass ceiling. Based on the findings of a study conducted by Balloonr, a majority (35 percent) of the respondents agreed that the best way to curb sexual harassment in the start-up tech world is to promote more women into leadership roles.

As mentioned earlier, having women in authoritarian roles is not enough, the focus should be on numbers. Women in leadership roles are also prone to face sexual harassment if they are outnumbered by their male counterparts in leadership roles.

The solution is to bring more women into the ranks. Harassment is significantly less likely to occur in workplaces and industries where women are well represented in the “core” jobs. This is because when women are in positions of influence, gender bias and power imbalances can be more effectively countered when they act as a collective to fight for equal opportunity and equal rights at the workplace.

Additionally, female managers show a lower desire to seek power ‘for power’s sake’, compared to men. Rather than pursuing status and recognition, female managers are more inclined to lead with their conscience, focussing on providing support and treating all team members fairly.

Executive teams of outperforming companies have more women in line roles versus staff roles. According to ‘Delivering through diversity, a research paper by Mckinsey, having more women executives in line roles (typically revenue generating) is more closely correlated with financial outperformance.

Marillyn Hewson joined Lockheed Martin in 1983 and has held several positions. She concurrently sits on the boards of both, Sandia National Laboratories and DuPont, both of which are performing well financially. Since taking over the role of CEO of Lockheed Martin in 2013, Hewson has more than doubled the market cap for the global security and aerospace company.

Lynsi Snyder is the heiress of the popular fast-food chain In-n-Out Burger and has taken the business to new heights – making it one of the best places to work in the US (according to CareerAddict), she has formed a real company culture and invests time in her staff by arranging trips, company perks and decent wages.

Sheryl Sandberg held various positions at Facebook, where she helped develop profitable digital advertising programmes. She is known for her international bestseller Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, which is a roadmap for personal and professional growth and a call-to-action for women to achieve their highest potential. Sheryl Sandberg has played a key role in driving revenue for the social network aspect, while strategically outlining the site’s plans to crack down on fake news and enforce its user policies more strictly.

It is not that women in power are actively preventing the predatory male behaviour, in fact, women too can be predators, but male-dominated organisations are more likely to have a cultural climate portraying competitive behaviours and aggression and the so-called “locker-room” culture.

Moreover, compared to women, men tend to have more trouble gauging women’s discomfort towards unfair or sexist treatment. In such contexts, the stage for sexual harassment is set, women are treated as sexualised pawns rather than competent work colleagues.

In conclusion, it appears that we may require greater legislative changes to persuade corporate India into focussing on greater gender diversity at the workplace. This may be one of the strongest ways through which we can actively change workplace behaviour.  

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

Also read: Countering the Culture of Silence in Sexual Harassment

Sexism at work: 10 subtle ways women are treated differently and how to deal with it

Diversity is the differentiator - nine organisations that drive home a key point


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