In tackling #MeToo, don’t ignore micro-insults that harm women’s careers

Will firing sexual offenders be enough to create positive work environments?
Will firing sexual offenders be enough to create positive work environments?
Image: Reuters/ Christian Hartmann
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The Harvey Weinstein horror show has brought attention to previously unspoken abuses of male power to sexually harass and suppress women. Prominent women are joining the #MeToo moment, feeling safety in numbers as they reveal facing egregious bullying. Businesses are reacting by firing the worst offenders and beefing up formal channels for complaint.

Will that be enough to create positive work environments? I’m also concerned about lingering micro-insults that arrive in a less overtly sexual guise, often shrugged off as too trivial to mention, and yet have a dampening effect on productivity and innovation. As I showed in my book Confidence, organizations on “winning streaks” thrive on a culture of respect, which underlies speed and innovation, while “losing streaks” are full of secret anger, shunning people who are different, and rejecting ideas.

Micro-insults can pop up anywhere. For example, a female tech genius CEO in a promising startup privately railed against a member of her investor-dominated all-male board of directors. “He calls me ‘sweetie,’” she said. Every time she heard it, she cringed, and felt his casual naming was a step away from rejecting her ideas or asking her for coffee. But the board majority supported this young male financial whiz. For a star Ph.D. scientist-CEO to fret about this during packed days of market-building was distracting and productivity-draining.

“Why don’t you tell him to stop?” she was asked. The answers were familiar. She didn’t want to seem unfriendly. She didn’t want to be accused of having no sense of humor. She didn’t want to become known as a troublemaker. She was tough, a scientist.

Fear of speaking out (FOSO) is unfortunately common, especially in settings where women (or minorities) are unusual, few in numbers, uncertain of their future opportunities, and not yet firmly in power. Without changing these underlying structural circumstances, we are stuck with common attitudinal explanations that appear to make inequity inevitable.

For example, an often-cited research finding is that woman can be viewed as competent or as likeable–but not both. True or not, believing it increases FOSO, as competent women face pressures, depending on their life and career stage:

  • The beer after work. Co-workers sometimes bond and share useful information in informal settings. One of the ways people who are in the numerical minority (I call them O’s) get accepted into groups of otherwise all X’s is to be seen as “having a good sense of humor.” That means laughing at jokes the X’s tell about O’s. The price of that kind of acceptance is decreased respect for everyone in their O category.
  • The dating market. Sometimes unmarried women hide their concerns and competence because they do not want to appear to compete with potential dating partners. But relationships based on concealment do not bode well for long-term success. The potential for creating an image of women as both competent and likeable takes a hit.
  • The double bind. Some women feel that speaking out will reinforce stereotypes about women being weak. Whiners and complainers can be seen as victims. Why call attention to problems when there’s important work to be done?

It is also said that unconscious bias is rampant, as shown by immediate associations on word tests, say of men with work or women with children. But this is actually “statistical discrimination”—playing the odds about typical gender patterns. When sufficient examples of new associations accumulate, perceptions can shift; for example, young boys in California and New Hampshire might believe that only women can become US senators, as they see the pair of female senators in each state.

Bias can be unwound by changing structures. As research by Harvard sociologist Frank Dobbin shows, diversity training programs aimed at attitudes are less effective than putting men and women together to accomplish tasks, which makes both competence and compatibility salient.

FOSO is reasonable for some women in circumstances where they have too much to lose. They could be financially dependent on an abuser, work in a setting with few others like them, or face a limited set of opportunities in their field. For them, speaking out requires a posse and a support system for finding opportunities. Structures, not attitudes, determine progress in the workplace.

Power is the antidote to abuses of power. Power brings the ability to trade favors. Watch likeability grow along with respect when enough women win top spots and can get people things they desire—budgets, promotions, tickets to sports matches, introductions to celebrities, script approval, time off. With power comes social desirability, as in wanting a female CEO or cabinet secretary at a dinner party and laughing at her jokes.

When I examined success in the workplace decades ago for my book Men and Women of the Corporation, I didn’t want to focus on gender per se. I wanted to downplay an emphasis on gender differences (meaning “women’s problems”) so that everyone, regardless of gender, race, or other minority category could use their talents and do their jobs with respect and dignity. That utopian fantasy is increasingly possible now that the numbers of women leaders with strong credentials are growing.

I’m confident that the tech whiz CEO won’t lose anything by speaking out; the investor board needs her talents. In fact, the strength she manifests by refusing disrespect might net greater respect. When women have power and use it, they elevate others.

This CEO can take aside the clueless board member to remind him of her expertise and her strong commitment to growing the company, which explains why she’s CEO in the first place. She can remain task-oriented and professional. And the next time he slips and calls her “sweetie,” she can always say, “Make that Doctor Sweetie…”

This article was republished with permission of Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, where it first appeared.