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Can Women Leaders Help Overcome Sexual Harassment In The Workplace?

Time and again many organizations have experienced that one of the most effective ways in preventing sexual harassment at the workplace is by hiring more women and promoting women to leadership positions

Photo Credit : Ritesh Sharma


Workplace harassment is a scourge that can no longer be ignored and employers cannot overlook their own responsibility in preventing sexual harassment at the workplace.

While factors like employee training are important, the climate of a company innately lies in the mindset and behavior that is encouraged within the company. Leaders speaking openly about their intolerance toward sexual harassment, promoting women to leadership roles and intervening when you witness misconduct, go a long way in creating that desired climate

Role of a Leader

When employers and leaders, be it men or women of an organization take workplace harassment seriously so do the employees. Leaders must take a strong public stand against misconduct and repeat that message time and again. CEO’s should be first in line for training and must lead by example. Such behavior has a trickle-down effect and when word comes from the top it has serious effects right to the bottom. The one step leaders can take to prevent this at their companies is to communicate to their employees that preventing sexual harassment is a high priority issue and in case of an occurrence it will be dealt with stringently will not go unpunished.

The way leaders communicate is also important in shaping people’s attitudes. In an experiment conducted by the Harvard Business Review, 618 online study participants were given a fictional statement from the CEO of a non-existent company. The statement contained a quote from the CEO about his views on the results of a sexual harassment survey taken by his company’s employees. One set of participants read a statement with the quote from the CEO, who emphasized the seriousness of the problem by saying, “The results of the survey are alarming” while others read a statement that downplays the issue such as “We are skeptical that the survey represents an accurate rate of sexual harassment at Soldola.” The information of the survey was factual and the same for all participants.

The simple difference in the communication of the two leaders turned out to be very powerful in forming opinion and mindset. Those participants who read “skeptical” were less likely to treat sexual harassment seriously and rate it as a high priority, whereas those who read the other message where the leader considers it a serious problem, were more inclined to rate it as a high priority issue.   

So, emphasizing the severity of the problem or the importance of preventing it, and having strict policies in place prove to be more impactful. This, in turn, sets the culture in which sexual harassment is not tolerated and sends a strong message to the entire company that such issues are not taken lightly and will be investigated and the perpetrators will be penalized. Such a message is absolutely critical in any company as the general atmosphere in an organization, more than any other factor, is ultimately what best predicts the occurrence or prevents sexual harassment.

Hire women. Train women. Promote women.

Time and again many organizations have experienced that one of the most effective ways in preventing sexual harassment at the workplace is by hiring more women and promoting women to leadership positions. It is clearly not the desired solution given the patriarchal and misogynistic work structures that still exist today but it may just be the most important thing that is required for women to march forth and shatter the glass ceiling.

It is also commonplace that many organizations take the easier or, I dare say, the more uninformed and sexist approach of not hiring women at all. Leaders must realize that by not hiring women at the workplace they are in fact cutting productivity. More women looking for jobs gives rise to a much larger pool of skills and abilities that employers could potentially choose from, which benefits them. Many companies lament the lack of skilled workers and by eliminating half of the population for consideration only augments this problem. The lack of skilled workers hinders the expansion of any company and the fact that women increase the sheer numbers of a workforce and provide for a wider array of capabilities, lends itself to aid companies in growing rapidly. And if one were to take a more holistic view of the issue of sexual harassment, it soon becomes apparent that women are not the problem. So not hiring women at all is a highly primitive approach to dealing with the issue of sexual harassment.

Harassment thrives in industries or workplaces where there is a heavy imbalance of power where men hold most of the leadership and managerial positions and women account for a very small percentage of such positions. According to a survey taken in 2018, the percentage of women in leadership positions was 24 percent globally and 7 percent in India. A Grant Thornton survey reports that 33 percent of all companies globally still do not have any women in senior management roles

This means that a high number of businesses do not have a female perspective and cannot leverage female input in executive decisions. We have also seen that this imbalance usually wreaks havoc when men take advantage of the fact that they have the power to make or break a woman’s career.

So, instead of not hiring women at all, companies should do the exact opposite, hire them, train them and promote them. And then, work to decrease power differentials at the workplace and create a culture of gender equality and promote a more neutral work environment.

Having women in “core” positions ensures a shift in the cultural set-up. Not just promoting women to positions of influence or hierarchy, to fix the problem of harassment one has to look for dominance in numbers as well. In many industries where the number of women is outflanked by the number of men, instances of harassment tend to read upward because of the sheer fact that they are outnumbered. So promoting more women into the ranks of influence is key in tackling the culture of a company.

Once in leadership positions, women are in a particularly strong position to overcome issues of sexual harassment at their workplaces. Women leaders at an organization, just by occupying the positions that they do within that organization have proven that women can rise to the top in their workplaces.

They are in a position to be able to help other women within their organization and can do so in myriad ways.

Fight against gender bias and create a culture of openness

Gender biases run deep in our society and a glaring indicator of this is reflected in the rather wide pay gap between men and women. We know that gender bias and sexism are signs of male supremacy and reside at the core of the problem of sexual harassment. With women in positions of influence, this bias can be more effectively countered when they act as a collective to fight for equal opportunity and equal rights at the workplace.

Male dominated workplaces have shown that instances of sexual harassment are either tolerated or brushed aside and many a time the women who complain of it are harassed, ostracized or worse still laughed at. With more women at the top, a culture of openness can be created, by talking about issues of discrimination and diversity more publicly. Getting people to talk comfortably about uncomfortable topics is crucial.

Most women do not come forward due to fear of retaliation, therefore setting the tone at the managerial level and creating an open door policy by ensuring the employees that if they are a victim of abuse they will be heard and action will be taken, is important. Female employees report cases if they perceive their company to take serious action and if they believe that they will not be ostracized for having initiating such action. The main question to ask is “what would you do if you're not afraid?” For this climate to exist the company has to make all their employees feel safe and the employees have to perceive their company as being ethical and just. Creating this openness and instilling faith in the employees is a commitment all leaders and managers need to take on. 

Create a group for women at work and foster a culture of intervention

There are many workingwomen’s groups but a group designed to cater to your organization alone will have far-reaching influence. It helps by connecting women within the company and enabling a conversation about various issues that are specific to your company.

When women have a seat at the table within an organization or an industry, it is imperative that they realize the potential impact that they can have on the other women working in the company or industry. They should work toward bringing more women up the ladder to join them at the table and only then will this foster change in any structure that is otherwise so male-dominated and heavily plagued with gender biases.

These groups also help in discussing one's issues openly and seeking advice in cases of harassment of any kind. Encouraging employees to report cases of harassment is important for intervention. And as and when required jump in to help other women in their fight, intervene and stand up and speak out. It's all about the environment of a workplace, do not be a mere bystander.

Become a mentor and give objective feedback

Workingwomen’s groups also facilitate mentorship opportunities. They open doors for women in junior level jobs to meet potential mentors who can help them rise up the corporate ladder and guide them along the way. Women in senior-level jobs can mentor young women by sharing their experiences and their journeys about how they made it to the top.

The idea is not only to praise or inspire but also tell them the truth without deriding them. Give honest feedback.

In the end, it would be very gratifying to know that your efforts helped in tipping the scales of gender equality at least within your company because it is very well established that gender equality at the workplace sets the culture of a workplace where meritocracy is of supreme importance.

Finally, the problem of sexual harassment cannot be tackled without addressing issues of gender biases and fixing behavioral habits and patterns at the workplace. The more gender neutral a workplace the more representative it is of diversity and the more outspoken the climate the less fear in the air to stand up for what’s right.

Amongst all factors that prevent sexual harassment at the workplace the role of the leader is absolutely the most important and better still if that leader is a woman because even though women enter the workforce in large numbers their representation at the top is dismal and highly skewed.    

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


The author is Co-founder and Director at Rainmaker, an organization that works on creating ethical workplaces.

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