Sheryl Sandberg warns of harassment backlash against women

The Facebook COO is right to want change in the workplace.

by Arun Kakar
Last Updated: 06 Dec 2017

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg took to, erm, Facebook to discuss the ‘critical moment’ for workplaces everywhere when it comes to sexual harassment.

‘It’s the power, stupid,’ Sandberg wrote in a lengthy and revealing post in which she spoke of her own experience of unwanted advances in the workplace. ‘I didn’t work for any of these men. But in every single one of these situations, they had more power than I did,’ Sandberg said. ‘That’s not a coincidence. It’s why they felt free to cross that line.’

Now, more than perhaps ever before, people are willing to hold perpetrators responsible. This is of course a good thing, but Sandberg said that companies need to heed this call to more systematic action to end abuses of power. ‘Too many workplaces lack clear policies about how to handle accusations of sexual harassment,’ Sandberg said.

Only through clear and consistent policy can there be a working environment in which workers are comfortable coming forward.

Ultimately, as Sandberg acknowledges, what will bring the most change is if more women are in positions of power. There is no reason why companies can’t seize this watershed moment as an opportunity to make real change happen. Sandberg outlines six principles that can make this a reality from having a clear and consistent process for dealing with accusations to making it clear to all employees that they have a role to play in keeping workplaces safe.

Few would disagree with these claims, but Sandberg points out the danger of this cultural moment swinging the other way. ‘I have already heard the rumblings of a backlash: "This is why you shouldn’t hire women",’ she wrote. ‘Actually, this is why you should.’  

Sandberg points to a depressing logic: it may be that the easiest way of avoiding the company falling into disrepute over harassment claims is simply not to hire women, rather than not promote the men who are prone to that behaviour.

‘I am afraid that Sheryl Sandberg’s predictions will come true,’ says Christine Naschberger, a professor at Audencia Business School. ‘I also think that there will be a potential "dark side" of the recent sexual harassment allegations in the media. It wouldn’t surprise me if women experienced a more hostile working environment in the coming months with, for example, an increase in sexist remarks. Women may also face more gender discrimination in the workplace.’

The number of harassment cases, both in the media and in the form of the #metoo movement, has made it clear that the old way of doing things isn’t working - and is unlikely to be able to regulate itself successfully. Sandberg is right to stress the need for  proper policies that go beyond tokenism, but make sure everyone is given equal an chance of thriving.

‘The answer lies in employers having clear code of conducts and policies and systematic and comprehensive training throughout the organisation,’ says Monica Atwal, Managing Partner and Employment Law specialist at Clarkslegal. That training needs to ensure employees have insight, to recognise they make value judgements as well as covering what is appropriate behaviour, how discrimination manifests itself within an organisation and the steps that need to be taken to avoid discrimination. Sanctions need to be measured. Power need to be checked. Management responsibility is not only to set standards but to ensure that the ways of work are constantly challenged and reviewed to prevent indirectly discriminatory practices but also so employers can attract the very best talent.’

Photo Credit: Flickr/Jd Lasica

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