Why Don’t Men Challenge Workplace Sexism?
What prevents men from interrupting sexist behavior in the workplace? A new Catalyst report examined that question and found that an organizational climate of silence can influence men’s responses as employees believe it is costly or pointless to speak up about inappropriate or discriminatory behaviors. Negin Sattari, a co-author of the report and senior associate of research at Catalyst, explains the research findings and what actions leaders should take, especially during the pandemic.
Q: What is the big takeaway of the new report, Interrupting Sexism at Work: How Men Respond in a Climate of Silence?
Negin Sattari: When men experience higher levels of organizational silence, they are less likely to directly question or comment on inappropriate behaviors from their colleagues. Men also expect more professional and personal costs and fewer benefits in responding to workplace sexism in organizations with climate of silence. These findings are consistent with broader research that shows fear of repercussions, threats to position, or concern about losing opportunities discourage or even disable people from using their voice and sharing their concerns when high levels of silence are experienced.
Your research was conducted before the pandemic. But you’ve said it’s especially relevant now. Why?
Sattari: Research suggests that stress and anxiety can make people more susceptible to biased and stereotypical beliefs toward others. Organizations that fostered a climate of silence prior to the pandemic and do not take intentional actions to address it now leave harmful interpersonal behaviors, including workplace sexism, unchecked. Right now, many women are further challenged to balance their family and professional responsibilities and are more vulnerable to loss of jobs, pay inequalities, and other forms of discrimination. A climate of silence can exacerbate these conditions by making it more difficult to interrupt moments of day-to-day sexism.
How does a climate of silence play out in remote-work settings?
Sattari: Our findings can be applied to both physical and remote work settings. Remote work settings normalize virtual communication and offer additional tools for reacting and responding to inappropriate behaviors.
Men who are less comfortable with speaking up, for example, can express their disagreement with sexist comments and behaviors in chat rooms. At the same time, these communication tools can provide an easier venue for sexist behaviors to manifest and spread. Employees’ perceptions of workplace climate persist and continue to shape their behaviors even when they work from home.
How and where did you conduct the research?
Sattari: With generous support from MAREA Consulting, Catalyst’s research partner in Mexico, we surveyed more than 300 men working in three multinational corporations in Mexico and conducted in-depth interviews with eight men. Doing research outside one’s lived cultural sphere is never easy, and cultural sensitivity is front and center in Catalyst’s mission to conduct globally relevant research. We worked closely with our partners to improve cultural accuracy, relevance, and sensitivity. While our data is from Mexico, our findings and recommendations are relevant globally.
What are two key steps men can take, in this new normal, to combat workplace sexism?
Sattari: All leaders should adopt a gender lens when participating in decisions about layoffs, re-appointments, and promotions. They should ask what demographic groups are more negatively impacted by decisions made and why. If they see patterns of gender inequalities, they should not hesitate to raise their concern.
Men should also engage in gender partnership behaviors, working with individuals of all gender identities to advance equity and inclusion. This has long been a focus area of Catalyst’s Men Advocating Real Change (MARC) initiative. Men need to lower their tolerance for insensitive behavior toward women.
What actions can leaders take now to break a climate of silence?
Sattari: Leaders need to prioritize inclusive leadership and commit to creating an inclusive work culture. Especially now, during this unprecedented time, it is essential for leaders to put in place mechanisms for employees to feel heard, engaged, and impactful. They should also demonstrate transparency, clarity, and honesty to assure employees that decisions are being made fairly. In the absence of clear communication, fear of losing jobs or opportunities can stifle employee voices during this turbulent time.