Women in the Law

Little agreement between the sexes on tackling harassment, Working Mother/ABA Journal survey finds

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The impact of the #MeToo movement on the American workplace is already apparent less than a year after several powerful men were charged in late 2017 with sexually harassing women.

It seemed like a story taking place in Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and Wall Street, but as #MeToo went viral on social media, women across the country came forward to tell their stories and share their collective unease about being safe at work.

We wanted to know how these headlines were playing out in organizations throughout America, so we surveyed almost 3,000 employees of businesses and law firms to examine sexual harassment in the workplace, how often incidents were reported, what prevented people from speaking up and whether senior leaders are stepping up to create environments where harassment or boorish behavior is not accepted.

What we found was all too common: While both women and men have a growing awareness of the need for organizational change in this moment of reckoning, not everyone is in agreement on what exactly needs to shift or how pervasive the problem is. In our new research, 61 percent of women surveyed thought men held a disproportionate share of the power in their organization, and only 31 percent of women said men are allies in reaching gender equality.

The survey also asked for solutions, and many of our respondents spoke out, advocating open discussions led by senior leaders, clear definitions of what is acceptable, and no fear of reprisal, among other ideas.

“We’re having a cleansing moment for organizations and for women,” says diversity consultant Jennifer Brown, author of Inclusion: Diversity, the New Workplace & the Will to Change. “Those in power (mainly men) have not been aware of the level of privilege that they and their colleagues have taken for granted. It’s time to have a bigger conversation."

To have that larger conversation in the workplace, we must understand what factors create an environment where an employee is comfortable reporting incidences of harassment, and, for those afraid to speak out, what factors are hindering them.

The findings

  1. Out of the female respondents, 68 percent indicated they’d experienced sexual harassment at work, but only 30 percent reported the behavior. Reasons for not reporting included concerns that it would negatively impact their job, and a belief that such behavior was tolerated.

  2. Of the male respondents, 19 percent reported that they had experienced sexual harassment, and 42 percent indicated that their sexual harassment complaints were taken seriously. Conversely, only 27 percent of the women surveyed reported complaints about sexual harassment were taken seriously.

  3. Fifty-two percent of the women said they didn’t report their complaint because it would negatively impact their job (versus 27 percent of the men); 47 percent of the women said the behavior was tolerated in their organization (versus 30 percent of the men); and 45 percent of the women said they had no confidence their senior leadership would address the issue (versus 24 percent of the men).


Upon examining the findings, it was clear that women and men see their organizations very differently, even down to acknowledging that a problem exists. For these women, #MeToo appears to be primarily about women taking on their companies and firms to change the way sexual harassment is addressed and the culture that condones it happening in the first place.

“It’s unfair that the burden falls to women who haven’t had a voice to hold organizations accountable. There has been an unspoken permission that existed [for men] to treat women this way,” Brown says.

Most of the men surveyed didn’t agree with women’s perception. Although the guys recognized that harassment exists, they felt the workplace is more equal, and more of them saw men as supporters in addressing harassment. In our survey, when asked if men and women are allies in reaching gender equality, 54 percent of the men said yes; 31 percent of women said the same.

Howard Ross, founder of diversity consultancy Cook Ross, explains the common male viewpoint this way: “The #MeToo movement is also a reminder of the roles women and men have played at work. But men might not see how this relates to them. A man who believes he treats women fairly might not understand why this is about him. This is often because dominant groups tend to see offending behavior as one-offs, rather than part of a larger structural issue. Until we can get men to see that, it will fall on women to bear the burden of speaking out.”

Ideas for the workplace

Our survey respondents provided a number of potential solutions to address sexual harassment on the job. The most frequently suggested ideas were:

  1. Courageous, honest conversations around sexual harassment need to occur at all levels and between all demographics.

  2. Create comprehensive education programs around sexual harassment at all levels.

  3. Organizations need to state clearly what behavior is acceptable in their workplaces (after consulting with legal and HR departments).

  4. Organizations must admit they are not immune from harassing behavior and engage in appropriate awareness building at all levels.

  5. Creating and maintaining a culture of respect for the individual is key for senior management, and should be trickled down through all levels.

  6. Hold forums to enhance partnerships between men and women, and close the gap on perceptions of power.


Anne Lawton, professor of law at Michigan State University, says the legal definition of sexual harassment includes behavior that it is “severe and pervasive” and can involve a quid pro quo—“You’ll get the promotion if you have sex with me.”—and a “hostile work environment,” where leaders accept and/or ignore harassment. However, she adds, under #MeToo, many people are now speaking up about under-the-radar workplace abuses of power.

Although most people agree that sexual harassment exists in the workplace, some female respondents admitted they don’t always make a big deal about some behaviors because it’s too much trouble or because they don’t think complaining will help. But some female respondents commented that it can be difficult to discern what’s real harassment and what’s offensive behavior, and when and how to call it out.

For example, one female respondent wrote about comments: “I sometimes allow older men a pass because I know they are not trying to be offensive, even when the behavior bothers me. It would be nice if there was a way to say ‘I don’t like it’ without them being hurt.”


The data showed that more men are feeling nervous about entering into one-on-one professional relationships with women, such as mentoring and sponsorship. When asked if these relationships are at risk because of the perception that unacceptable behavior could be occurring, 56 percent of the men agreed, compared with 35 percent of the women.

One male respondent had an extreme reaction: “What I do know is that one allegation can be a career killer. So, as a male who is in a leadership role in my office, I will not be alone in the office with any female—whether she is a colleague or a support-staff member. This is to protect myself,” he explained.

The problem with that, of course, is that women have fewer opportunities to excel if men in power are too afraid to support them and give them one-on-one time. Comments like these demonstrate that while more people talk about sexual harassment, boundaries must be set by organizations so people feel safe in professional relationships.

#MeToo Workplace Study from ABA Journal and Working Mother Media

Methodology: In March 2018, the Working Mother Research Institute and the ABA Journal surveyed almost 3,000 people online, 65 percent of whom were female. Respondents came from a mix of professions, with the majority working in the legal industry.

Barbara Frankel is executive editor of the Working Mother Research Institute at Working Mother Media. Stephanie Francis Ward is a senior writer at the ABA Journal.

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