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Gender discrimination and sexual harassment are nothing new, especially in the workplace. Women around the world have struggled for parity ever since they forced their way into the labor market. But something changed in 2018. The #MeToo movement turned a new page in a very old story. From Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and CBS executive Les Moonves to U.S. Sen. Al Franken and veteran journalist Charlie Rose, powerful men in powerful positions fell like dominoes as scores of women came forward to tell their stories of suffering at the hands of unscrupulous managers — lewd comments, forced sexual acts, blackmail, threats, retribution, the list goes on.
Women have been reporting such criminal activity for decades only to have their credibility questioned. A historically high tolerance for inappropriate male behavior has meant little, if any, repercussions for the perpetrators. That left exploited women with two options: keep quiet and stay employed, or dare to speak up and become an instant pariah, shunned in the office and often demoted or made to leave.
“This has been going on forever. And the problem was that when you complained, you lost your job. You ostracized yourself,” said Janice Madden, University of Pennsylvania professor of regional science, sociology, urban studies and real estate. “There got to be enough attention that somebody started really paying serious attention to these complaints, and that is what made the whole thing blossom.”
The #MeToo movement is in full bloom, but will it wither and die in 2019? The public is fickle, with a tendency toward fatigue on controversial issues. A slowdown in momentum could push the issues to the background, negating any progress made in the past year.
Wharton management professor Katherine Klein is hopeful that the movement will not only continue, it will expand.
“When I think about how long we have been thinking about these issues,  was the year that sexual harassment really came to the fore. This is the year that these stories are making news, and my sense is this is here to stay for quite a while,” said Klein, who is also vice dean for the Wharton Social Impact Initiative. “We are not going backward. These issues will continue to get a lot of attention in 2019, and I think that is good.”
Klein and Madden joined the Knowledge@Wharton radio show on Sirius XM for a discussion about the future of #MeToo. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.) Their insights are informed by years of professional experience and academic research, but also by their lives as women. “I was in college in the mid- and late 1970s, and these were big issues,” Klein said. “I was an undergrad at Yale, and we thought a lot about women’s empowerment. And wow, progress has been slow. There has been a lot of progress, but it has been slow.”
One reason for that slow pace is that gender equality requires a cultural change in both society and the workplace. Ironically, Madden pointed out, many of the men who have been supportive of women in their careers have traditionally been “womanizers.” “For young women trying to get ahead, it was a challenge as to how to manage that: How to use what this person wanted to give you but keep an arm’s length?” Madden said. “I think that going forward men are going to be more conscious of this and be less likely to go down that path. So, hopefully in the future there will be less of this.”
“We are not going backward. These issues will continue to get a lot of attention in 2019, and I think that is good.”–Katherine Klein
Women need mentorship in order to rise to leadership positions in the workplace, and most of those mentors are going to be men. Madden said she’s concerned that the #MeToo movement could have a chilling effect on mentorship.
A New York Times article published in January highlighted the unintended consequence: More companies are limiting contact between female employees and male managers, and recent surveys find more men report being uncomfortable mentoring female colleagues in the workplace.
“Because most of the available mentors are men, anything that potentially puts a freeze on men’s comfort with mentorship is a concern,” Madden said. “I am not against #MeToo. I am all for #MeToo, but I am worried about making sure that men who are trying to help women are supported in that effort.”
There have been measurable gains recently. According to research from Pew, the number of female CEOs on the Fortune 500 list went from zero in 1995 to an all-time high of 32 in 2017. The number of women serving in government is also at an historic high. And California recently passed legislation requiring publicly listed companies with headquarters in the state to have at least one woman on their board of directors by the end of the year.
However, equality is still a long way off. A December report by the World Economic Forum said it would take 202 years for gender parity in the workplace, much longer than the 170 years estimated in 2016.
Klein said it’s important for companies not to make tokens out of women at the top. Putting one woman on the board, as the new law in California requires, is a start, but it’s not enough. “There is some very interesting research that looks at women in the C-suite and suggests that when companies get one or two women in the C-suite — the chief executive officer, chief financial officer, and so on — they typically stop,” she said. “And there is sort of an, ‘OK, we got it. Good, we have some diversity. Check, we’re done.’ I am mindful of that as well.”
A key to achieving workplace parity is accommodating women’s roles as mothers and caregivers, the professors said. About 90% of professional women are in dual-career marriages, compared with 50% of professional men, Klein said. That means men are far more likely to have spouse at home.
Madden noted that women who are taking time off from work are usually tending to family, which generally isn’t the case with absent male employees.
“This has been going on forever. And the problem was that when you complained, you lost your job. You ostracized yourself.”–Janice Madden
“I think the issue is trying to figure out how you can support families and support the bottom line and profit,” Madden said of companies. “And recognizing that you have developed lots of standards around who is a promotable employee based on the male model. The female model is a different one.”
The professors are encouraged by the attention that #MeToo is gaining in social media and popular culture, citing a recent commercial by Gillette addressing “toxic masculinity.” Still, that’s not enough.
“The artistic media side of the U.S. economy is much more into this than middle management in middle America is,” Madden said. “These issues are talked about very differently because they are different mindsets, it is a different culture. It is the avant-garde versus people who are just trying to put food on the table and make a business operate, and not thinking in the same way.”
Klein agreed, but she said there is a lot of reason to believe in the future of gender equality. There are so many positive messages about parity sinking into the culture that the issue can only go forward.
“There is such a conversation going on around sexuality in this country among young people and this notion of a gender continuum that was just completely unheard of decades ago.,” she said. “So yes, I think there are so many different conversations. It will be very interesting to see where these all go in five, 10 years.”