Male & Female HR Leaders Are So NOT On The Same Page About Sexism

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man and woman at work

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June 21, 2024 at 2:8AM UTC
Sexism continues to plague way too many women in way too many workplaces. While this sad reality never becomes any less disheartening, it’s certainly not new news. In fact, this past summer, headlines about a certain Google memo and a fake male co-founder — among numerous others — served as particularly poignant reminders of the blatant and subtle ways in which sexism persists.
But there is some new news about sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace that may surprise you. A recent survey conducted by Young Women’s Trust reveals a pretty stark contrast between the way male and female HR professionals view women’s experiences at work, both in general and within their own walls. The survey, which questioned 800 U.K. employers, found that 76 percent of female HR decision-makers believe sexism still exists in the workplace, compared to 53 percent of men in the same position. And while 40 percent of the women surveyed think their own workplace is sexist, only 24 percent of men hold that same view.
“Too many young women are facing sexism and sexual harassment while trying to carry out their jobs,” says Young Women’s Trust Chief Executive Dr. Carole Easton. “It is shocking how many employers are aware of this in their own workplace — yet the problem continues.”  
Easton’s referring to the fact that one in eight of the large employers surveyed (those with 250+ employees) admitted to knowing that sexual harassment has occurred and gone unreported in their workplace, and 10 percent have said they’re aware of formal reports of sexual harassment at their company. Meanwhile, we know that one survey of women in Silicon Valley found that 60 percent of female employees had encountered workplace sexual harassment.
This gap between men’s and women’s perceptions — and the attitude that “sexism is a problem, but not where I work” — is reminiscent of a 2016 Fairygodboss survey that explored what men think of gender diversity in the workplace. We questioned over 300 men working full-time in the U.S. and found that while one third of respondents believe women are treated unfairly in the workplace in general, just 10 percent think women are treated unfairly at their company.
And while 32 percent of male managers surveyed admit that they’ve noticed gender bias in their workplace, 90 percent of these men also reported that they think women are treated fairly in their workplace (responses were similar among non-managers).  
What can we do to change the way employers and employees alike are thinking about sexism and sexual harassment at work?
Those working in HR play can play a particularly important role in shifting the current dynamics, which is why the Young Women’s Trust survey is especially relevant.
Here are some takeaways and tips:
1. For starters, we should all resolve to be more aware of everyday sexism and have a strategy for calling it out when we see it.
2. We should also make sure our company’s leadership team — and employees — are well-aware of the definition of sexual harassment and what that can look like in the workplace.
3. Gather data. Companies should do whatever they can to get a better understanding of how men and women perceive sexual harassment and sexism in their workplace. Uncovering this info is the first step understanding how to address issues of sexism and gaps in perception.
4. Encourage more open and candid conversations about how these issues affect your workplace. Not sure of how to make that happen? Consider PwC U.S. Chairman Tim Ryan’s strategy to combating racism and unconscious bias in the workplace (hundreds of other companies are already following suit!)
5. Train managers, and hold them accountable. Research out of Stanford highlights that when people are assigned to better bosses, they are less likely to leave the firm. The first year as a manager is key for developing skills and habits. Often, managers are judged solely on financial performance; yet structured training and clear expectations for leadership quotient should be an essential element of every company.
6. Try, learn, iterate and share results: Finally, at an organization level, companies should continue to experiment with different approaches, or at least dialogues, to pinpoint their firms’ unique gender-related strengths and challenges.

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