Despite #MeToo, most women don’t see a change in the workplace

A disruption rumbled through American popular culture over the last year as the #MeToo movement proved how widespread sexual misconduct is in the workplace and beyond. But despite heightened awareness about gender-based abuse and harassment, it seems that little discernible change for women has taken root at office buildings across the country.

Fifty-seven percent of women believe that in 2018 things stayed the same for female professionals in the U.S., according to women’s career site Fairygodboss’ December 2018 report on gender equality at work.

That trend aligns with other recent surveys that arrived at similar conclusions by NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found that in 2018, the same number of women_nearly two-thirds – felt their male colleagues did not treat them as equals as when a similar survey was conducted in 1999. 

And, according to a report by Pew Research Center, only half of the respondents thought men getting away with sexual harassment and assault in the workplace was a major problem and 20% believed the spotlight on sexual harassment would actually result in fewer opportunities for working women down the line.

If women will lose out on promotions and other opportunities because of a climate that discourages sexual misconduct, that may be because of blowback from men who are afraid of engaging with female colleagues, lest they be perceived as predators. When Fairygodboss surveyed men about #MeToo’s impact on the workplace in April, the results showed that 17% of men were less likely to engage with a woman because of the movement. Similarly, Pew Research Center found that 55% of men felt it was harder for them to engage with women at work because of the new focus on sexual harassment.

Fairygodboss’ co-founder and CEO Georgene Huang told Ladders that men choosing not to be alone with female colleagues to avoid being accused of misconduct poses its own legal questions. It’s true that sexual harassment is against the law, but so is gender-based discrimination.

“You can’t treat employees differently on the basis of sex,” Huang said.

Though men refusing to work with women will only contribute to inequalities, already, it seems there’s a discrepancy in how both genders treat one another at work. According to Fairygodboss, more women reported being promoted by a female boss than men, while more men reported being promoted by a male boss that women. That tendency becomes a problem when women fill almost half of entry-level positions but only comprise 22% of workers in the C-suite, according to LeanIn.Org’s and McKinsey and Company’s 2018 Women in the Workplace report.

“It’s not good news that our inherent biases are to promote people who are like ourselves,” said Huang.

There are ways to help women in the workplace — not only to prevent sexual harassment, but also to encourage them to stay in their jobs, Huang said. She called parental leave a “no-brainer,” but she tried to dispel misconceptions about which incentives women want most. Traditional values often inform our notion that women are most attracted to a job because of flexibility and work-life balance, but Huang indicated women’s first priority is compensation.

“I think our data shows that equal pay is like the top of the list,” Huang said. “And yes, flexibility at work is really important.”

Huang expected more women to report change at their workplaces because of all the conversations she had seen about trending topics that represented awareness about sexual misconduct and women’s lack of representation. She said she was surprised by how many women believed nothing had shifted since last year.

But in her own view, cultural norms are transforming, though the tide is slow. Even the Google walkouts, she said, were a sign of a rising consciousness that did not exist a decade ago.

“I have to believe that the norms are shifting,” Huang said. “It may not be something that’s fair to measure in one year.”