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New Study Suggests That #MeToo Movement Hasn’t Had The Desired Effect

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The powerful US entertainment industry was shaken in 2017 when the New York Times and other media outlets started reporting on widespread sexual harassment and assaults by powerful men from show business. Spirits were high at the time and people thought that bringing this issue to light and punishing the culprits would have a deterring effect, a Harvard Business Review suggested.

Among the sceptics were Leanne Atwater, a management professor at the University of Houton, and her colleagues. “Most of the reaction to #MeToo was celebratory and assumed women were really going to benefit,” she said. “We said, ‘We aren’t sure this is going to go as positively as people think — there may be some fallout.”

To prove their point, Atwater and her team began a study in early 2018 for which they created two surveys — one for men and one for women — and distributed them to workers belonging to different professions, collecting data from 152 men and 303 women in all, reported Harvard Business Review.

What the researchers sought to understand was if men and women had different views about what sexual harassment is, mainly because the men accused in the movement frequently claim they didn’t understand how their actions were being perceived, while women who report it are sometimes deemed overly sensitive.

The surveys described 19 behaviours, including continuing to ask a female subordinate out after she has said no, emailing/texting sexual jokes to a female co-worker and passing comments on her looks. They also asked participants whether these actions amounted to harassment.

The men and women mostly agreed. On the three items on which they differed, men were more likely than women to label the actions as harassment. “Most men know what sexual harassment is and most women know what it is,” Atwater explained. “The idea that men don’t know their behaviour is bad and that women are making a mountain out of a molehill is largely untrue. If anything, women are more lenient in defining harassment.”

For their next step, the team explored the incidences of harassment in a workplace and found out that around 63 per cent of women reported having been harassed, with 33 per cent experiencing it more than once. Age, the supervisor’s gender, whether the woman did a blue-collar or a white-collar job and whether she was married had no bearing on her being harassed.

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But only 20 per cent of women who had been harassed reported it. Amongst those who didn’t, the main deterrents were fear of negative consequences and being labelled troublemakers. Around 5 per cent of men admitted to having harassed a colleague while another 20 per cent said that they might have done so.

The biggest revelation made by study has to do with the backlash received by the #MeToo movement. The respondents said they had expected to see some positive effects. For instance, 74 per cent of women said they thought they would be more willing to speak out against harassment and 77 per cent of men anticipated being more careful about potentially inappropriate behaviour.

But more than 10 per cent of both men and women said they thought they would be less willing than before to hire attractive women. Around 22 per cent of men and 44 per cent of women predicted that men would exclude women from social interactions such as after-work drinks and nearly one in three men thought they would be reluctant to have a one-on-one meeting with a woman.

Meanwhile, around 56 per cent of women said they expected that men would continue to harass but take more precautions against getting caught and 58 per cent of men predicted that men in general would have greater fears of being unfairly accused.

Since the data was collected soon after the #MeToo movement gained momentum and much of it focused on expectations, the researchers conducted a follow-up survey (with different people) in 2019. This revealed a bigger backlash than respondents could have ever anticipated.

About 19 per cent of men said they were reluctant to hire attractive women while 21 per cent were reluctant to hire women for jobs involving close interpersonal interactions with men (jobs involving travel, for example), and 27 per cent said they avoided one-on-one meetings with female colleagues. Only one of those numbers was lower in 2019 than the numbers projected the year before.

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Atwater believes some of the behaviours are manifestations of what is sometimes called the Mike Pence rule — a reference to the US vice president’s refusal to dine with female colleagues unless his wife is present. “I’m not sure we were surprised by the numbers but we were disappointed,” shared Rachel Sturm, a professor at Wright State University who worked on the project. “When men say, ‘I’m not going to hire you, I’m not going to send you travelling, I’m going to exclude you from outings,’ those are steps backward.”

The researchers provided several recommendations for organisations looking to reduce harassment, a number of which involve prevention training. Their study shows that traditional sexual harassment training has little effect, perhaps because much of it focuses on helping employees understand what constitutes harassment and available data shows they are aware of that.

Instead, the researchers say, companies should implement training that educates employees about sexism and character. Their data shows that employees who display high levels of sexism are more likely to engage in negative behaviours and training can reduce that. Their data also shows that people of high character — those who display virtues such as courage — are less likely to harass and more likely to intervene when others do.

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