After six months of daily #MeToo revelations regarding sexual harassment in the workplace, it would be easy to succumb to feelings of outrage. Where do we even begin to fix a problem of this magnitude? To me, as a university president, the question is of more than passing concern. I am responsible for the working environment of more than 1,000 people. They, in turn, have an impact on the lives of some 10,000 students in the Royal Roads learning community taking classes every year.
And, as #MeToo unfolds, it’s clear that we in the postsecondary sector have not been doing enough to promote the values of respect, decency and equity in our programs. We need to do more than pay lip service to building respectful workplaces. We need to be establishing policies and practices to change the culture of our organizations.
As I contemplate returning to the classroom next year, I am struck by the increasing competition for talent. People are an organization’s most important asset and you cannot retain good people in an abusive workplace.
For an academic who took on university leadership 16 years ago, I also find it sobering to see how little has changed in the world from what my own research on leadership revealed decades ago. Beginning in 1980 at the University of Calgary, my late colleague Julie Rowney and I embarked on a longitudinal study comparing the experiences of managers in a variety of organizations. From 1980 to 2000, we tracked women and men working in supervisory, managerial and executive roles at five-year intervals. We compared such things as styles of decision-making and approaches to leadership and communication.
We found that, when it came to objective measures of performance, men and women behaved in a similar fashion. But there was a big difference in the way the world perceived them. As a result, women were treated differently: they were given far less respect than their male colleagues. We published our research and translated it into leadership programs for women.
However, in 2015, it became obvious to me that little had changed. As part of Royal Roads’ 75th anniversary, we hosted a conference on women leading change. Women leaders in education, industry and politics shared their experiences about how organizations continued to treat them differently than men, particularly at the top.
The differences were often subtle: they were ignored in meetings, stereotyped and held to a higher standard of leadership. As I listened, I was left with an eerie feeling of déjà vu. I’d heard exactly the same comments when we interviewed women leaders as part of our longitudinal study.
How could this still be going on? Somehow, the memo that women’s contributions to the world are just as valuable as men’s has still not reached many, if not most, of our enterprises.
If there’s a silver lining in the dark cloud of the #MeToo scandals, it’s that they are pushing some long-festering problems into the spotlight where we can address them. But, as I see the inevitable backlash on #MeToo beginning, with commentators insisting they have never experienced or seen this sort of harassment, I think it’s time for academics to speak up about what the research tells us.
At the risk of “mansplaining,” let me say that in my corner of the academy we have been documenting misogyny in organizations for decades. Not all women experience the belittling behaviour or harassment, and not all men have done it, but there is no doubt the problem is widespread. And as recent headlines reveal, persistent.
As academics, we have the tools and the opportunities to gather knowledge and teach the ideas that lead to solutions. So, as I head back to the classroom, I know that the #MeToo movement will change the way I teach leadership.
For example, current research suggests that unconscious bias influences attitudes. I will be recommending that my students take the Implicit Association Test for teasing out subtle prejudices about race, gender and sexual orientation. Developed by psychologists at Harvard University, the University of Virginia and the University of Washington, test results can be used to discuss how we can demonstrate inclusive excellence in class. You can take the test yourself.
Of course, one instructor making one change won’t change the world. But think about what we could do if more of us began focusing at least some of our work on changing the conditions that have led to #MeToo. Personally, I think we owe it to the public that supports our institutions to do more than just talk about it – or worse, just be silent.
Allan Cahoon is the president and vice-chancellor of Royal Roads University.