What Women Want?

Emily Heaton, Campus News Editor

As we enter a new paradigm in which the impact – rather than the intent – of one’s actions is becoming the standard by which we qualify sexual harassment, 280 female HBS students – roughly one-third of the female student population of HBS – have drawn on their workplace experiences to weigh in on which behaviors they find inappropriate. Campus News Editor Emily Heaton (HBS ’19) finds that what they have to say may surprise you.

For full data results from the survey, please click here.


We have seen much attention paid to the onslaught of high-profile sexual harassment allegations, semi-apologies and falls from grace over the past year, thrusting into the spotlight issues that were hitherto relegated to the periphery of our cultural consciousness. Such revelations have not only amplified but changed the very nature of the conversation, resulting in greater credence given to women rather than their silencers.

However significant these changes are, the evolution of this discourse appears to be far from complete.

First, there has been a disproportionate focus placed upon the most egregious and high-profile cases. It would be difficult to find a reasonable person who expressed surprise upon hearing that Weinstein’s coercive peepshows were deemed exceptionally inappropriate. These are, for all intents and purposes, clear transgressions of black-and-white workplace sexual harassment policies.

What these cases do not help us understand, then, are the gray areas – the highly contextual dynamics that may not fit neatly into one side or another of a black-and-white definition of sexual harassment. They represent a majority of the potentially problematic interactions among men and women in the workplace, yet attitudes surrounding how to proceed within these contexts seem to be more fraught than ever. This begs the question: what are the implications of this new paradigm for workplace dynamics among men and women?

One female HBS student expressed fear that, in response to this new paradigm, men in the workplace will retreat from mentoring women. “I think senior men are going to think twice before mentoring younger females, mainly because of the ambiguity of these relationships. My boss might not think he did anything wrong, but I might perceive it differently,” she explained. “It creates a situation where everyone is on edge.”

Within this context, homophily – the tendency among individuals to bond with those who are similar to them – and protective hesitation – the inclination among individuals from different categorical backgrounds (e.g., gender) to avoid acknowledging important issues (e.g., gender as a potential barrier to career advancement) for fear of offending others – are both at play. Professor Tony Mayo, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School, considered how these dynamics could engender a potential backlash against the new paradigm. “People may say, ‘I’m not going to take this risk.’ All things being equal, people could decide that it’s easier for them to mentor someone similar to them.”

Furthermore, there exists a question regarding what the amplification of women’s voices and subjective experiences suggests to men. For every article we’ve seen raising the concern that the #MeToo movement victimizes women, we must also remember that this diametrically criminalizes men. As the logic goes, if “everywoman” is able to speak to the harassment that women encounter in the workplace, then perhaps “everyman” becomes a potential harasser – locking women and men into a victim–harasser dialectic that silences men and stultifies productive and open conversations about these issues.  

This may explain why, in some public contexts, men are remaining silent. For example, several articles published in the immediate aftermath of this year’s Golden Globes point to a glaring lack of vocal male engagement during the awards ceremony. As one such article in The Atlantic put it, “facing a sea of women wearing black, not one of the dozen-plus men who received an award seemed compelled to note that anything about the night was different. For the men of the Golden Globes…it was business as usual.”

Men may not feel empowered to weigh in, particularly if they think they may be vulnerable for past behaviors, well-intentioned or not. The same Atlantic piece goes on to suggest that “the subtext men seemed to hear [that evening] was that women’s voices are the only ones that matter when it comes to advocating for change.”

This sentiment does not appear to be limited to Hollywood. “It’s really powerful that women are finally able to come forward and tell their stories, and it’s important for men to listen to these stories,” said Kristin Mugford, Senior Lecturer at Harvard Business School. “But what I’m most worried about,” she continued, “is that men’s natural response is to pull back.”

A solution to this, according to Professor Mugford, is to open the dialogue. “Part of what we need to do is try to facilitate more honest conversations and opportunities for people [women and men] to share their experiences,” stated Professor Mugford. “Right now, we’re afraid of asking.”

Joshua Margolis, Professor of Business Administration in the Organizational Behavior unit of Harvard Business School and course-head for the Leadership and Organizational Behavior course, echoed Professor Mugford’s point: “Right now is a nice moment to capitalize on the differences at HBS and to learn from them.”


A survey conducted by The Harbus among female HBS students explores subjective experiences of harassment and the potential confusion of male colleagues surrounding how to act around females under this new paradigm. Ultimately, it is meant to build a foundation for a more honest and actionable discussion.

What the survey is not is a black-and-white rulebook for our male peers to carry into work, endorsing, for example, actions that 50% or more of the respondents found appropriate. We must acknowledge that for every scenario presented, there existed women who responded that they would be uncomfortable, even if a majority of respondents felt differently. Notably, there was no scenario within the 72-question survey that women unanimously agreed upon, speaking to the highly complex, contextual, and ambiguous nature of this issue.

Should the benchmark for appropriate workplace behavior be determined by our most conservative colleague? This is a question that remains open, but a way to work within these constraints is to ask before acting.

Finally, we acknowledge that in contrast with the great diversity of our workplaces, this survey focuses specifically on male (supervisor or co-worker) – female (protagonist) relationships within the workplace. This, of course, is not the only dynamic that lends itself to a risk of (at best) ambiguity and (at worst) harassment experiences within the workplace. For example, interactions between female bosses and their male direct reports, or in which one or both individuals identify as part of the queer community, are equally as serious and deserving of our attention as future managers. Our hope is that although the survey results are narrow in scope, they will spur discussion about these broader dynamics as well.


There are some survey questions that female students of HBS nearly unanimously agreed upon. The dynamics that would make over 95% of female HBS students uncomfortable if performed by either a male co-worker or a male supervisor in the office are: whistling at her as she walks by and intentionally brushing up behind or beside her.

Alternatively, the dynamics that would leave over 95% of female HBS students comfortable if performed by either a male co-worker or a male supervisor include: being in a closed (but not locked) office together and asking a woman to join him and a group of male coworkers at a work-related social event, such as a sports game or concert.

A female MBA student found the last statistic to be significant. “I don’t think it’s surprising at all that women feel comfortable being invited to these outings. Attending work-related events outside of the office is part of your career, part of building your brand,” she explained. “There’s an unspoken ‘secret sauce’ [that leads to success], which is: do the seniors know who you are? Is your name out there? Women want the opportunity to make a name for themselves just like men do in these super casual but important situations.”

When prompted to speculate why men would retreat from extending such invitations to women, she offered her own personal anecdote of being left out from a weekly happy hour among the men in her office.

“For years I was excluded from the opportunity to spend time outside of the office with my male colleagues, and it’s unfair.” She continued, “Men are very afraid they’re going to get accused of doing something wrong, and the upside to them [of inviting women] does not seem to be worth it.”

More commonly, though, as is the case in any HBS classroom discussion, the survey results yielded plenty of contrasting opinions – especially when dynamics involved romantic relationships.

48% of female HBS students reported that they would feel comfortable if asked on a date by a male co-worker. Only 6%, on the other hand, reported that they would feel comfortable if their male supervisor made the same proposition.

The survey revealed another close outcome when female HBS students opined on being asked about their romantic relationships by their male supervisor: 51% said they would feel comfortable with this. Conversely, 74% of respondents reported feeling comfortable discussing their relationships with male coworkers. On a related note, when asked about either a male co-worker or supervisor inquiring about their sexual orientation, only 37% and 24% of women, respectively, reported feeling comfortable.

A male HBS student believed that these results speak to the importance of being thoughtful about the wide array of interpersonal dynamics and differences that could influence how these situations are experienced. “If you want to deepen a relationship with someone in your office, either as a friend or romantically,” he said, “you have to be respectful and approach each relationship on a case-by-case basis. That respect means being thoughtful about where your coworkers might be coming from – you cannot make assumptions.”

Female HBS students were also collectively ambivalent regarding their experiences with language used in the workplace, revealing that an expression that is unobjectionable to some could simultaneously be experienced as sexualized or offensive by others. For example, phrases such as “we don’t want to get too pregnant with an idea/deal” and “opening the kimono” received nearly an even split among those who feel comfortable with this language and those who do not.

One female HBS student explained that her discomfort with such phrases stems from the gendered nature of the expressions themselves, and what the use of these terms conveys about the speaker. “If my male boss uses this phrase,” she elaborated, “it’s clear to me that he’s unaware that he is making a gendered comment. He’s completely unaware of his audience.”

“It’s important that you understand the meaning of what you’re saying and the way it might be perceived by other people,” added a male HBS student. Still, he observed, “what’s difficult is that the language we use and our ways of engaging with others have been deeply ingrained. They are habits that are difficult to change unless you have made a conscious effort on your own to change them.”  

Perhaps unsurprisingly, when the phrases become more sexually explicit, such as when penis analogies are used (e.g., “grow a dick,” “they’re measuring their dicks”), respondents noted feeling collectively more uncomfortable: only 36% and 22% of women feel comfortable when male co-workers and supervisors, respectively, use these phrases in work-related discussions. Interestingly, when prompted about their comfort with their male co-workers or supervisors employing the word “pussy” in work-related discussions, only 7% reported feeling comfortable.

Survey respondents also weighed in on a more innocuous occurrence in workplace conversations: when men change their mind or apologize after using an expletive, simply “because a woman is present.” Two-thirds of female HBS students feel uncomfortable when male co-workers and supervisors do this.

Perhaps the spoken act of drawing attention to a female colleague’s presence – to her femaleness and all that this could convey – is actually drawing attention, more fundamentally, to her difference. “When men do this,” said a female HBS student, “it makes me think that they can’t be themselves around me, that they have to police themselves. It makes me feel like I am lesser.”

Female HBS students recorded another mixed response when asked about their attitudes surrounding a ubiquitous – yet often gendered – salutation: the hug. In workplace contexts, while 80% of respondents feel comfortable being hugged as a salutation by their male co-workers, only 61% feel comfortable when their male supervisors do the same. A similar pattern exists for the act of touching a woman’s arm or patting her on the back to console her: 83% and 70% of women, respectively, reported feeling comfortable with their male co-workers and supervisors doing so.

A female HBS student offered her thoughts on these results. “I think a lot about how to greet someone in a work context before the meeting. I’ll be thinking about whether I should initiate a hug, a kiss on the cheek, or a handshake. This actually brings me a lot of anxiety,” she confessed. In considering how this ambiguity might be more constructively handled, she offered the following suggestions: “First, the takeaway of this data point for me is to ask. Also, though, I think men should try to be more aware of nonverbal cues. At the end of the day, I’d like to be greeted in the same way that someone would greet a man.”

Another female student shared her thoughts: “Your workplace is where you spend most of your time, and it should feel comfortable and human. But, is there any need to hug in the workplace? No. Of course not. That said,” she hesitated, “it’s unnatural or unrealistic to think that people are going to start treating their workplace like a sterile environment.” And – would women want that, anyway?

A male HBS student echoed his female peers, citing a need to become more comfortable with inquiry and openness in these situations. “You have to ask – it’s a sign of respect. For example,” he added, “if you are the type of person that greets people with a hug, you’re going to have to communicate that, and make sure that you are respecting people’s individual boundaries.”

Some of the most interesting data that the survey yields centers on female HBS students’ perceptions of male co-workers and supervisors, respectively, sharing one-on-one drinks with junior males and females, respectively.

90% of respondents reported that they would feel comfortable if they were to see a male co-worker getting drinks one-on-one with a junior male employee. A similar comfort level (e.g., 86%) was reported when the parties in question were a male supervisor and a junior male employee.

Similar, but slightly less, comfort levels were reported when male co-workers or supervisors were to be seen having drinks one-on-one with a junior female employee. 86% of respondents felt comfortable seeing a male coworker and a junior female employee getting drinks together, while only 74% felt comfortable when the parties in question were a male supervisor and a junior female employee.

Notably, a perception gap among these scenarios only exists when the actors being considered are a junior female employee and her male supervisor. A female HBS student interpreted this situation: “the knee-jerk reaction is that something sketchy is going on, and that this situation is not OK.”

Ideally, according to the student, this wouldn’t be our reaction. Acknowledging that this immediate assumption is difficult to shake, the student continued, “It is OK to have the knee-jerk reaction that something sketchy is going on, as long as it is checked,” she emphasized. “I would give someone the benefit of the doubt in this situation, and I hope someone would do the same for me.”

Given that these contexts are often opportunities for employees to bond in a more casual setting outside of the office, the consequences of even a small perception gap can be meaningful. Explains one female HBS student, “a lot of the relationships that further careers are organic, and when men receive different treatment [by more readily being invited to one-on-one interactions with mentors], it gives them an advantage in developing those relationships. Not being invited to these things might not seem like a big deal now,” she acknowledged, “but the more we progress, the bigger deal this becomes.”


Through this survey, we grew in awareness of our female peers’ subjective experiences of harassment or discomfort in the workplace. But many more important questions remain to be explored. For example, how might men have answered these same survey questions, if prompted to take the survey from the perspective of a female colleague? How do men, themselves, view the appropriateness of a senior male executive getting drinks with a junior male versus a junior female? As this survey specifically targets female students, the results yield only part of the story – and these issues are equally as challenging and uncomfortable for men as they are for women. How can we begin to discuss and resolve these issues in a way that makes everyone comfortable to share their stories?  

In 1993, the Harvard Business Review brought attention to similar issues discussed in the survey: small, everyday dynamics among men and women “in the trenches” that can build up to an uncomfortable or uneven workplace environment.

As the piece’s protagonist, a ‘90s female executive, puts it, “little things that happen daily—things many men don’t even notice and women can’t help but notice—send subtle messages that women are less important, less talented, less likely to make a difference than their male peers.”

The article goes on to explore the fictional internal debate of a mid-level female executive who was considering flagging the uncomfortable dynamics and sexism that she and her female colleagues encountered to her male boss, whom she feared may not be receptive to or understanding of her claim.

This could easily have been written today, serving as a reminder that doing too little to talk about these issues and push the discussion forward could easily result in another 25 years of stagnancy and silence for women experiencing (at best) discomfort and (at worst) harassment in the workplace.

“For years, HBS has been a leader in creating the conditions needed to facilitate discussions about things that are complicated,” said Boris Groysberg, Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School and Faculty Affiliate at the HBS Gender Initiative. And, as Professor Groysberg and Colleen Ammerman put it in their recent Harvard Business Review piece, “sexual harassment is not a women’s issue but a leadership one.”

At this juncture, as students of business administration at this institution, and as future leaders within our workplaces and communities, we are uniquely responsible for asking ourselves how we can ensure that the discourse surrounding sexual harassment and equality in the workplace continues to evolve to address the ambiguity of interpersonal dynamics and to foster open participation of men.

Our hope is that the results of this survey catch your attention, encourage you to think about how you might have answered the same questions, and force us as a community of peers to continue pushing the discourse toward a more actionable realm.

Great strides were made in 2017 to heighten awareness surrounding workplace harassment and collegiality and to lend both voice and validation to women who are survivors of harassment. We can all agree that a consequence of those strides must not be for men to retreat from mentoring and otherwise closely, equally interacting with women in our workplaces.

The survey data will be deposited at the Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, and will be preserved for research in perpetuity. Join the Library on Monday, February 26, 2018 at 7pm for #metoo: Truths and Consequences, an event that seeks to deepen difficult interdisciplinary and intergenerational conversation around #metoo. Learn more and register.

Acknowledgements: Special thanks to Professor Kristin Mugford, Professor Joshua Margolis, Professor Tony Mayo, Professor Julie Battilana and Professor Boris Groysberg for lending their time, guidance, and insight to this endeavor; Colleen Ammerman, Director of the HBS Gender Initiative; Rhonda Shafei (HBS ’19); the leadership and members of the HBS Women’s Student Association for their support and participation.

Emily Heaton (HBS ’19) is the Campus News Editor for The Harbus. Though she grew up in San Diego, California, she gradually moved east – calling both Chicago and then New York City her home – before arriving at HBS. Prior to HBS, Emily worked in investment banking and private equity. In her recently obtained free time, she enjoys watching soccer (Arsenal, in particular), eating pizza, and talking about her passions for investing and gender equity (and, of course, investing in gender equity).