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Q&A Week 11

How Small Wins Can Counteract Harassment Culture

In the second part of our interview with Professor Shelley Correll of Stanford, we talk about how to change attitudes about sexual harassment. The key: stopping problematic behaviors before they become big problems.

Professor Shelley Correll and D&I In Practice founder Terra Terwilliger discuss how the small wins approach can help organizations combat sexual harassment.

TT:    What are some of the topics you see in the next phase of this discussion about equality at work?

SC: “Obviously, sexual harassment itself is a big barrier for women being able to succeed at work. In our work at the Lab, we have been thinking about how to get beyond the culture that permits sexual harassment in our workplace, and what we could do to make some small wins on that problem as well. 

We had one woman tell us that she felt like anytime that she looked one of her male colleagues in the eye at work, he would ask her out for a date. So, her strategy was to just not look at them.

TT:    Do you have any hypotheses on what would constitute a small win around sexual harassment?

SC:  We’re trying to understand the way sexuality plays out in the workplace to begin with so that we can try to figure out what [are] the best ways to intervene in cases of misconduct. With sexual harassment, people usually pay attention to the big, egregious acts—the guy who's been repeatedly sexually harassing women over time, which is important. But the culture that allows these big acts  to happen is one that permits all kinds of other, much less egregious behaviors to happen and go unchallenged. 

So our team is interviewing women in technology about their experiences at work, and what you find is that a lot of stuff that really causes women to feel like they're not included in the workplace, that makes them want to quit their job, are more minor things like repeatedly being asked out on a date by someone they don't want to go out on a date with. This doesn't get coded as problematic by the person doing it, but it is problematic for the person receiving this treatment.  And, if this behavior is common in a workplace, it becomes part of the culture, signaling that unwanted behaviors directed at some employees are okay. 

I think there's a lot of work that could be done with our workplace trainings around sexual harassment  that go beyond ‘you’re going to get into trouble if you do this.”’ We need to focus on the micro-dynamics that goes on between men and women , or men and men, or whomever, that are causing some people to be less than fully included in the workplace.

We had one woman tell us that she felt like anytime that she looked one of her male colleagues in the eye at work, he would ask her out for a date. So, her strategy was to just not look at them. Can you imagine going through your workday feeling like the only way to succeed was to not look at your colleagues? This affects people's work output, right? This affects people's sense of belonging in the organization. This just seems like it's something that we could make some traction on. 

TT:    What you're talking about are some fairly subtle nuances of human behavior, particularly in a culture where people spend so much of their lives at work. 

SC:    Yeah, it’s nuanced, but I’ve been motivated by the small changes in behavior that we've been able to accomplish in other realms. For example, most women (and many men) have had the experience of being interrupted when trying to share their ideas. So, one effective small change we  can make is say to an interrupter, ‘I want to hear what you say, but can I first hear the end of what Terra was going to say?’

This response is so simple that once people learn it, they instantly started deploying it. I was talking with a woman yesterday who said she was in a meeting where this happened to one of her female colleagues. She said, ‘Hold on, I want to hear what Jennifer has to say.’ Jennifer later comes to thank her for standing up for her. Then the CEO of the company, who was at the meeting, said, ‘Wow, that was really cool, I'm going to start doing that. I never really had thought to do that.’

For the most part, people in companies are decent people who have good intentions. They're not trying to undermine their colleagues.  Helping them see how their behavior may be, unbeknownst to them, interfering with their colleagues’ success is a good place to make a small win because you're allowing people to live up to their good intentions.

TT:    How do you get more senior leaders to accept feedback?The more hierarchical an organization is, the more it needs these kinds of interventions. But it's also more difficult for the people who are affected to provide feedback.

SC:    We know that it's much easier to make these kinds of changes in organizations that already have supportive leadership teams. The work that I've done has been mainly in organizations that invited us in, so leadership is often already onboard. .

But my team has also observed that even when there is less support from top leadership,  small wins can be deployed at the team level. There's no reason why a manager could not, as a part of their own goals say, ‘We're going to try to work on using better criteria when hiring people or when deciding whom to promote.’

Sometimes, in our interventions where we focus on assessing people on clearly articulated criteria, someone will say to me, ‘I don't see what this has to do with gender. This is just good management.’ It is just good management, and with good leadership and good management, diversity is  going to follow, because you’re fairly assessing talent.  There's no business argument for introducing bias into how you assess talent. 

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