How to ensure that sexual harassment is taken seriously in the workplace, and that women aren’t alienated in the process.

The “#metoo” movement helped expose the prevalence of sexual harassment in society, particularly in the workplace. While the spotlight has been on women working in Hollywood’s film and television industry, hundreds of thousands of women around the world have responded, bringing to light their own experiences of sexual harassment.

The impact that this has had on workplaces is profound. The Lean In organisation has recently done some research of US workplaces in the wake of #metoo. Troublingly, they found that since the reports of #metoo in the media, almost 50 per cent of male managers are uncomfortable participating in common work activities with women. Examples included mentoring, working alone, socialising and travelling for work. So far no similar studies have been done in Australia, but the trend is worrying.

Though #metoo encourages women and men to speak up and call out sexual harassment, inappropriate workplace behaviour and sexual assault, the Lean In research suggests that it may have a negative impact on gender equality in the workplace. If male leaders are discouraged from mentoring women, taking women to meetings or travelling to conferences with women, then women could miss out on vital opportunities for career development and advancement.

Here, we give you three important tips on how to support gender equality and help prevent sexual harassment in your workplace.

Mentor and sponsor women

In many organisations, the majority of key leaders and decision makers are men. Among the ASX 200 companies in Australia, there are more CEOs and chairs named John than there are women CEOs and chairs. There are also more men called Peter. And more men called David.

A key way for women to move into leadership positions in the future is for male leaders to mentor them. Generally, women who are mentored can be more confident in their abilities, take more opportunities to progress and are guided in their careers.

Another way to support women’s careers is through sponsorship. This moves beyond career guidance and involves a male leader taking proactive steps to assist a woman’s career progression. Women who are sponsored by people in more senior roles may be recommended for more promotions and advancement opportunities, and can be supported for pay increases and career development.

Encouraging more senior men to sponsor and mentor women in your workplace is a great way to ensure that your organisation is moving towards gender equality in leadership positions in the future.

Treat sexual harassment allegations seriously

The crux of #metoo is that by standing together and identifying as having experienced sexual harassment, female victims can no longer be ignored or dismissed. It raises awareness about the spectrum of harassing behaviour and the wide range of women it impacts.

A survey by the Australian Human Rights Commission (AHRC) in 2012 found that 25 per cent of women in Australia had been sexually harassed at work. The survey also found that only 20 per cent of people who were sexually harassed reported it. These numbers suggest that sexual harassment is normalised in many workplaces and that women consistently feel unable to report it. Unsurprisingly, the issues start appearing well before employees even make it into the workforce. AHRC’s 2017 report into sexual assault and harassment at Australian universities revealed that one in five students were harassed, and 87 per cent of sexual assaults went unreported.

All allegations of sexual harassment in your workplace should be treated seriously, investigated empathetically and dealt with in the framework of gendered power-dynamics. By this we mean that investigations and disciplinary outcomes should take into account the power imbalance that can exist between men and women; in which men feel entitled to treat women as sexual objects and women feel scared and powerless to stop it.

Ask women

Certainly don’t just take our word for it – ask the women in your workplace. Open dialogue is really the first step to making workplaces fairer and safer for everyone.

Ultimately, if you have questions or concerns about whether your workplace has a problem with sexual harassment, takes sexual harassment seriously enough or is moving in the right direction for gender equality, ask the women you work with.

This article is part of a regular employment law column series for HRM Online by Workplace Relations & Safety partner Aaron Goonrey and lawyer Emma Lutwyche. It was first published in HRM Online on 16 February 2018. The HRM Online version of this article is available here.