An unsettling surge of sexual harassment scandals is shaking up big business — following high-profile cases at Fox News and Uber, in venture capital and across military academies and, most recently, accusations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, workplaces are rightfully tensing up. And with the recent #MeToo movement on social media, sexual harrassment is a hot topic, indeed. The Society for Human Resource Management has witnessed a spike in questions pertaining to sexual harassment from its members and, as a society, we’re having more of the critical conversations for which we’ve been advocating, which is something to celebrate. Right?
Certainly, heightened awareness surrounding workplace harassment is a step forward and will, in many ways, improve behavior as employees become cognizant of the consequences and thus conduct themselves with sensitivity. But, that said, some men are evading engagement with women altogether, such as individual meetings with female entrepreneurs, potential recruits and women who ask for informational or networking meetings.
In total, 64 percent of senior men and 50 percent of junior women avoid solo interactions, according to the Center for Talent Innovation. A May poll by Morning Consult also found that nearly two-thirds of men and women agree that people should take extra caution around the opposite sex in the workplace, and about a quarter think that private work-related meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex are inappropriate. Simply said: They’re concerned that a single misunderstood comment, any one accusation, the risk of rumors or unclear motives could jeopardize their careers. But their avoidance is setting women back in the workplace even more.
Of course, hard work reigns supreme, but it’s no secret that having advocates plays a significant role in one’s success; who you know can never hurt. And research shows that establishing genuine rapport with senior staff is perhaps the most important contributor to career advancement. Those respected relationships are referred to as “sponsorships,” wherein sponsors facilitate potential opportunities for certain employees and actually push for them.
According to a study by the Center for Work-Life Policy, women with sponsors are indeed more likely to earn challenging assignments and raises and to say they are satisfied with their career progress. A sponsor may also provide valuable candid feedback, which women are less likely to receive than men, according to research by the nonprofit Lean In.
But, at every level, more men than women say they interact with senior leaders at least once a week, and a gamut of more research suggests that this imbalance does in fact encumber women’s progression into higher-level positions.
Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder and chief executive of the Center for Talent Innovation, which studied sponsorship, told The New York Times that sponsors have to spend some capital and take a risk on up-and-coming people, which they wouldn’t be inclined to do without knowing and trusting them. These sponsorships are therefore crucial for “getting from the middle to the top.”
Of course, the lack of sponsorships for women is only exacerbated by the sheer fact that men still make up the majority of leadership roles, from Sillicon Valley to STEM and the bulk of industries in between. The age-old Catch-22: Women could use more sponsorships to move up and, in order for women to have more sponsorships, we need more women to have moved up.
AnnaMarie Houlis is a multimedia journalist and an adventure aficionado with a keen cultural curiosity and an affinity for solo travel. She's an editor by day and a travel blogger at HerReport.org by night.