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11 March 2020

Employers must act on toxic workplaces

Julia Gillard

JULIA GILLARD: Findings from a survey we published last week reveal a minority tolerate workplace behaviours that harm women's careers

Toxic workplaces

In 2015 Susan Fowler joined Uber as an engineer. On her first day her new boss contacted her to disclose that he was in an open relationship and looking for women to have sex with. In 2017 Fowler published a viral blogpost detailing the incident and the harrowing year she spent trying to get HR to take her allegations about the company’s sexist culture seriously. She was told her boss’s status as a “high performer” protected him from punishment, and she was subsequently ostracised within the organisation. Her blogpost is widely seen as one of the triggers for the #MeToo movement, which kicked off eight months later, and last week Fowler published a book about her experience.

Despite the greater scrutiny of toxic workplace behaviour post-#MeToo, we still have some way to go. A new survey by Ipsos MORI and the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London (which I chair) has found that more than a quarter of men around the world think it’s acceptable to tell sexually explicit jokes or stories at work. The figure is the same for men in Britain, and rises to almost half of men in countries such as Belgium, China and Russia. Even more shockingly, more than one in eight men globally believe it’s OK to display material of a sexual nature in the workplace.

Those who hold such views are clearly in the minority, but it’s a significant one. These attitudes can make people’s – especially women’s – working lives a misery and mean organisations miss out on talented individuals who don’t feel welcome, safe or respected

While media stories and public debate tend to focus on individual perpetrators and victims, far less attention is given to the workplace environments that allow inappropriate behaviour to become pervasive and acceptable, and less still to the link between these kinds of environments and women’s career progression and success. If employers want to pay more than just lip service to gender equality and avoid losing talented women, they need to properly invest in creating cultures that value diversity and inspire respect for all.

Key to this is making sure women feel able to speak out when the culture falls short. Our survey found that women in some countries – including Britain and the US – are much less likely than men to say they would feel confident in telling off a senior colleague for making a sexist comment. But the opposite is true when it comes to calling out a friend, family member or junior colleague for such a comment. In these cases, women are just as likely as men, and in some cases significantly more likely, to feel able to challenge chauvinism.

We must all be active bystanders when faced with inappropriate behaviour, yet in a workplace setting there can be real consequences for doing so, as Susan Fowler found out. Damage to professional relationships, isolation, being passed over for promotions, and even harassment or intimidation, can be the costs. All this is compounded by women being less likely to be in positions of power and therefore more likely to pay the price.

So, following International Women’s Day last weekend what can we do to transform workplace cultures and better enable women to succeed?

The responsibility for maintaining an equal, dignified and respectful workplace lies squarely with employers. Organisations need to start treating gender equality as a business-critical mission that affects all employees and the environment in which they work. It is not simply a “women’s issue” or an easy source of good PR.

The UK’s biggest women’s rights charity, the Fawcett Society, is campaigning to make employers step up by strengthening the law on sexual harassment. They argue that employers should have a duty to take proactive action against such behaviour, rather than putting the onus on victims to come forward after the fact. Bosses should also create an environment where employees feel able to speak freely to senior colleagues about their concerns, as evidence indicates this has added benefits, such as increased performance.

We’ve come a long way since 2015 and cases like Susan Fowler’s – at least in terms of how prominent these issues now are in the public consciousness. But changing deep-seated attitudes takes time. There are still some dinosaurs left who allow insidious work cultures to damage women’s careers. Extinction can’t come soon enough.

Julia Gillard is former Prime Minister of Australia and Chair of the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London.