#MeToo: A Reckoning on Workplace Harassment and Psychological Safety
Featured, Interview

#MeToo: A Reckoning on Workplace Harassment and Psychological Safety

Upoma Dutta, Media & Entertainment Editor

Upoma Dutta (MBA ’21) talks with Professor Amy C. Edmondson about what’s changed in the two years since #MeToo went viral.

On October 5, 2017, the New York Times published an explosive exposé on how one of Hollywood’s most successful film producers, Harvey Weinstein, abused his power for decades to subject numerous actresses to sexual harassment. Ten days later, one of Weinstein’s victims—the actress Alyssa Milano—tweeted to her followers: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted, write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”

This sparked a global movement: over the ensuing months, millions of women around the world took to social media to share their personal stories of sexual harassment. The effects of the #MeToo movement reverberated far beyond social media: a series of powerful men, from TV journalist Charlie Rose to CBS chief Les Moonves, were forced to step down for sexual misconduct as the victims finally broke their silence. 

On the heels of the second anniversary of the watershed moment, I sat down with Professor Amy C. Edmondson (PhDOB ’96), the Novartis Professor of Leadership and Management at the Harvard Business School, to explore the interpersonal challenges in the workplace that the #MeToo movement unearthed.

Earlier this year, Professor Edmonson published the book The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. The book brings together Professor Edmondson’s 20-year research on “psychological safety,” defined as “an environment where people can speak up, offer ideas, and ask questions without fear of being punished or embarrassed.”

Professor Edmondson’s research has found that psychological safety creates the foundation for high team effectiveness and organizational learning. On the other hand, a lack of psychological safety creates a “culture of silence,” where people do not speak up against perceived wrongdoing due to the fear of damaging work relationships or being labeled negatively.

Asked if the revelations from #MeToo seemed surprising, Professor Edmondson responded, “The magnitude of sexual assaults in the workplace definitely surprised me, but the silence of the victims did not. Speaking up about issues as threatening as sexual harassment creates immense interpersonal challenge, especially if the perpetrator is in a position of power. In an environment with extremely low psychological safety, women are understandably too scared to speak up as they believe they could face major negative repercussions.”

Sexual harassment not only damages employee morale but also creates financial and reputational risks for companies. Case in point: Harvey Weinstein’s independent film studio, The Weinstein Company, filed for bankruptcy last year to resolve numerous civil suits on behalf of Weinstein’s alleged victims. To counter such risks, how can organizations proactively create a psychologically safe environment for women?

“Senior business leaders and corporate boards of directors must show their commitment by allocating resources to sexual harassment training for employees. More importantly, they must show that they will hear women out,” Professor Edmondson notes.

“A hallmark of low psychological safety is a Cassandra culture—an environment where women are not believed and warnings are ignored, even by the Human Resources function. In fact, in many organizations, the HR function’s classic risk management strategy was to disbelieve women and be the organizations’ first line of defense against potential sexual harassment lawsuits. But organizations—with help from the HR function—must foster a culture where women are believed.”

The #MeToo movement also brought focus on other challenges that women still face in the workplace. For example, in 2018, women in the United States earned only 85% of what men earned, according to the latest Pew Research. In addition, women still hold less than 20% of board seats on companies in the S&P 500 index. Could factors such as gender pay gap and low representation in top leadership also adversely impact women’s psychological safety?

“Pay and seat at the table are widely recognized indicators of value. And any signal that indicates a group of people—based on their gender, race, or sexual orientation—has less value leads to lower psychological safety for members of the group,” Professor Edmondson explains.

“It’s no longer enough to focus solely on workforce diversity. Leaders must also instill a culture of inclusion to make women feel valued and promote equal pay and advancement opportunities for women.”

To get equal advancement opportunities as men, women must often get the same amount of mentoring. However, earlier this year, a new study by Leanin.org found that, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, 60% of male managers are nervous about mentoring women or engaging with women in one-on-one meetings.

“There could not have been a more ironic and counterproductive response to the awareness brought forth by the #MeToo movement,” Professor Edmondson laments. “Men should not hesitate to train a junior female colleague or travel with a female coworker to a client’s site because they fear others might negatively interpret their actions. Instead, men should show leadership and try to find opportunities to reduce barriers of growth for women in the workplace.”

Professor Edmondson, however, remains optimistic about the road ahead. “The #MeToo movement created widespread awareness on the challenges faced by women. Nobody can now deny that the workplace is not a level playing field. And this awareness empowers leaders to galvanize support throughout the organization to find solutions to these challenges and create a much more equitable workplace than we have ever in the past.”

 


Upoma Dutta (MBA ’21) came to HBS after spending roughly four years in the media and entertainment industry in New York, where she helped two media companies (HBO and Disney) transition into the streaming era and build on new strategic growth opportunities. Originally from Bangladesh, she also worked for the International Finance Corporation (World Bank Group) early in her career to promote financial inclusion and financial sector stability in South Asia. She holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from The Institute of Business Administration, University of Dhaka.

October 10, 2019
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