As evermore women come forward to share their stories of sexual harassment in the workplace, Sheryl Sandberg warns that she’s “already heard the rumblings of a backlash: "This is why you shouldn’t hire women.”
Behind a multibillion-dollar company with two billion users, Sandberg is one of the most powerful executives in the world — but harassment still happens to her “every so often” with men who feel that they have more power than she does.
“As I’ve become more senior and gained more power, these moments have occurred less and less frequently,” she writes. “The world has always been run by men, and it still is today… We are seeing what happens when power is held nearly exclusively by men. It gives rise to an environment in which, at its worst, women are treated as bodies to be leered at or grabbed, rather than peers entitled to equal respect.”
The Lean In author implored women to be more ambitious when her book was published in 2013, but research shows that women who face sexual harassment at work are more likely to quit their jobs, leave their industries and cope with long-term mental health issues thereafter. For those who do choose to plow ahead despite unwelcome sexual advances, they’re met with evermore men who are weary of their workplace relationships with women; more and more men are adopting the “Pence Rule,” as the vice president reportedly will not dine alone with another woman unless his wife is present.
“Four years ago, I wrote in Lean In that 64 percent of senior male managers were afraid to be alone with a female colleague, in part because of fears of being accused of sexual harassment,” Sandberg goes on. “The problem with this is that mentoring almost always occurs in one-on-one settings. One of the most gratifying responses I got from Lean In was when senior men acknowledged that they had been giving fewer opportunities to women, often without really thinking about it. I got call after call where CEOs and some of the most senior men in many industries told me, ‘I never really thought about it before — but you are right that I take men on the trip and to the dinner rather than women and that is unfair.’”
Sandberg is cheering for women in this “watershed moment in empowering victims to speak up, sharing stories — which takes immense courage by itself.” But cheering, she says, is not enough. Rather, she calls for systemic, last changing that’ll deter bad behavior, protect everyone and end the abuse of power imbalances due to gender.
“Doing right by women in the workplace does not just mean treating them with respect,” she explains. “It also means not isolating or ignoring them — and making access equal. Whether that means you take all your direct reports out to dinner or none of them, the key is to give men and women equal opportunities to succeed.”
This is a critical moment and opportunity that can quickly devolve into the unintended consequence of holding women back if we don’t proceed wisely, she warns.
How should we proceed? Sandberg advises the following steps: “Every workplace should start with clear principles, then institute policies to support them. First, develop workplace training that sets the standard for respectful behavior at work, so people understand right from the start what’s expected of them. Second, treat all claims — and the people who voice them — with seriousness, urgency, and respect. Third, create an investigation process that protects employees from stigma or retaliation. Fourth, follow a process that is fairly and consistently applied in every case, both for victims and those accused. Fifth, take swift and decisive action when wrongdoing has occurred. And sixth, make it clear that all employees have a role to play in keeping workplaces safe — and that enablers and failed gatekeepers are complicit when they stay silent or look the other way.”
Ultimately, having more women in power will change our culture. While Sandberg acknowledges that this won’t solve all the problems we face, far less individuals will be sexually harassed, and that’s a major step in the right direction.
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.