Gender Equality at Work Requires More Than Corporate Tokenism

Last month, a Fusion article warned women to beware of “the guy who talks a big game about gender equality… then turns around and harasses you, assaults you, or belittles you,” coining the term, the “woke misogynist.” The same warning can be made about corporate gestures toward gender equality. In an age where feminism is cool, it now takes more scrutiny to discern the genuine from the superficial. Many businesses are relying on their image as hip, progressive organizations to appeal to socially-conscious consumers by making statements about equal pay, donating to the ACLU, or appointing a handful of women to their boards. Yet, so many of these companies continue to foster systemic cultures of sexual disrespect, harassment, and assault.

Sex Discrimination in the Workplace

Multiple accounts of sexual harassment have recently come to light in the tech industry. Susan Fowler’s February blog post revealed the rampant sex discrimination and harassment she faced while an engineer at Uber. She recounted her experience with the HR department, which retaliated against her for making complaints and refused to take action against her “high performing” harasser. She says the number of women in the organization dwindled from 25% to 6% while she was there. Another survivor came forward with her account a few weeks later under the alias Amy Vertino, detailing similar backlash for reporting the sexist behavior of her colleagues. She reports Uber CEO Travis Kalanik “is well known to protect high performing team leaders no matter how abusive they are to their employees.”

Sex discrimination in employment is not unique to Uber. The tech industry averages 21-22% female employees. 60% of women in tech report being sexually harassed in the workplace. The hostile environment both creates barriers for women entering the tech industry and also causes them to leave the field at alarming rates, 45% higher than men. After reading Fowler’s blog, The Observer reached out to women in tech and, within a few hours, had twelve more personal accounts of workplace sexual harassment. Allison Esposito, the founder of Tech Ladies, said they hear similar stories at least once a week. A female engineer recently filed a lawsuit against Tesla for failure to take action against the pervasive harassment. TechCrunch conducted a number of anonymous interviews that further evince the rampant mishandling of sexual harassment complaints in the industry.

Even beyond tech, the core issue is that sexism pervades male-dominated industries. The culture reflects the leadership, and as Rachel Bitte, chief people officer at Jobvite, explains, “tech is the newest industry to see male dominance in leadership roles, but we saw the same sort of problems that resulted in lawsuits decades ago in industries such as manufacturing or mining.”

The financial industry is also struggling to increase diversity and address discrimination. 25% of companies on the Russell 3000 index have no women on their boards. According to an SEC report of Fortune 500 companies, women and minorities held 30.8% of corporate board seats in 2016, which the Alliance for Board Diversity criticized as not moving fast enough. Increasing board diversity requires planning, they counseled, given that the board is often a reflection of the lack of diversity in the rest of the company.

Token Responses

#DeleteUber gained new momentum after Fowler’s post. Uber claimed they were launching an investigation into workplace practices in light of the allegations, and crafted a message to consumers trying to delete their accounts, expressing their condemnation of the conduct Fowler described. “What she describes is abhorrent and against everything Uber stands for and believes in,” read the message. Fowler criticized the company for naming and blaming her for the deletes, rather than taking meaningful action. In a conversation with Vox, Elizabeth Ames, who works with male-dominated tech companies to increase their gender diversity, said she would give Uber’s response “mixed marks.” Her primary critiques are that the investigation does not appear independent—it includes an Uber lawyer, an Uber HR executive, and an Uber board member—and its treatment of the issue as an isolated incident rather than a systemic problem with the company culture.

Similar critiques have surfaced regarding gender diversity efforts by the financial industry, arguing they are superficial or do not go far enough. While many praised the new “fearless girl” statue that was erected on Wall Street for International Women’s Day as an important symbol about the need for more women on corporate boards, others called it “fake corporate feminism.” As Jillian Steinhauer points out, the statue was installed by companies that have only 18-27% women in leadership. According to one economist at the University of Chicago, board quotas alone are not effective at changing corporate culture without more, and women are often silenced during the actual decisionmaking processes.

From Tokenism To Reform

What is the relationship between token gestures and a comprehensive response to gender inequality at work? Are the gestures merely pretense, or a laudable first step? The answer is not always clear, and may differ from one company to the next. Neil Thompson, Professor at MIT Sloan, suggests tokenism comes in two forms—deliberate tokenism and tokenism by default. The former is an attempt to create only the appearance of a commitment to equality, while the latter may be genuine, but reflects a lack of understanding about the complexity of the issues.

Many scholars on tokenism writing in the 1970s were concerned with a handful of women being tokenized in male-dominated fields, and promoted equal representation as a solution. In the late 1980s, Lynn Zimmer had an even more thorough critique, arguing that equal representation wasn’t enough. As she put it,  “there is no reason to assume that increasing the number of women in an organization will necessarily improve their conditions of employment.”

Setting aside competing views about whether corporate gestures are well-intentioned, one thing is certain—companies must provide more than a symbolic statue or an apologetic statement from a CEO in order to make real progress on gender equality issues like equal pay, representation, retention, and sexual harassment. Title VII prohibits sex discrimination in the workplace, and requires employers to respond adequately to claims of sex-based harassment. Elizabeth Ames says the key is transparency, accountability, and a holistic approach. Transparency allows everyone to see what needs improvement, accountability means taking responsibility for changing corporate culture, and a holistic approach focuses on all aspects of employment, including recruitment, hiring, retention, and promotion. Increased training and reporting is often part of Title VII settlement agreements for sexual harassment lawsuits. Companies should take affirmative steps to change their culture by implementing similar remedies before they are facing legal consequences.

Responding to allegations of sexual harassment necessitates conducting independent investigations and building an HR team committed to handling complaints and taking action against offending employees. As Marta Moakley, attorney and editor with XpertHR, advised, “CEOs need to reject the temptation to dismiss media coverage of sexual harassment claims as over-reactive,” and instead deal with the problem head on. Some have also suggested that companies like Uber would do well to get rid of its mandatory arbitration and class action waiver, which prevents employees from joining together as a group and keeps the case from going public. According to employment attorneys, roughly 80% of tech companies have mandatory arbitration agreements.

Ultimately, tokenism is harmful if it makes us complacent. Movement toward reforming corporate culture involves continued commitment toward developing comprehensive, proactive responses to sex discrimination in the workplace—something for which we should continue to hold companies accountable.