When Rachel Ruttan and Ashley Hardin came to Washington University’s Olin Business School as assistant professors last summer, they did so with some forward thought. The duo made it their modus operandi to incorporate respectful engagement and bias in the workplace and began with the core undergraduate course on introducing organizational behavior, which they co-taught. By last fall, they were talking directly about gender dynamics in organizations. By spring, students were learning about the psychological consequences of feeling powerful, and how to create safe work environments, where employees feel comfortable speaking out against unethical behavior in the office.
“Once entering the workforce, students may find themselves embedded in organizations that may have problematic gender dynamics, as well as strong organizational cultures that make it difficult to speak up,” Ruttan, whose research interests are in compassion and prosocial behavior, motivation, and emotion, says. “We thought it was important to speak to concepts of moral courage and how students can seek to proactively design their organizations to remove barriers to speaking up.”
On top of preparing their business students to be able to identify unhealthy workplace environments, and how they are contributing to or can change them, the Olin Women in Business club also launched a Men as Allies initiative in March this year. These actions are being echoed at many other business schools, where professors are using companies like Uber to reference the morphing handling of sexual harassment, and engaging students in discussions of subconscious harassment with words and gestures that make others uncomfortable.
MANAGEMENT EDUCATION IN THE #METOO ERA
All of this is not coincidentally happening during the rising #MeToo movement. The phrase “Me Too” was first coined in 2006, when Tarana Burke, a sexual-assault survivor, set out to help other women deal with their past trauma. But it’s really in the last year that the #MeToo movement has gained rapid steam. Many high profile men have been called out for their actions in the wake of the movement, including those in the entertainment and news media industry like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and James Franco to politicians like Al Franken and Roy Moore. The result has been a worldwide call for policies and workplaces to change. And a few business schools are taking it upon themselves to train future business leaders adept and sensitive to gender equity.
“The (Men as Allies) initiative includes events focused on gender equity, action steps to combat unconscious bias, and a weekly newsletter to encourage ongoing engagement,” Julie Kellman, an officer for Olin Women in Business, wrote in a blog post. “Allies events are designed with two objectives in mind: to open lines of dialogue and create action steps.”
Kellman added that the new initiative drew a full house at their kickoff event in January this year, and will focus on dialogue and conversations in small working groups where participants can feel safe sharing details of past experiences both as a woman in business and as an “ally with good intentions.”
“Our primary goal is to build common ground and expose unconscious biases that are held by both men and women alike,” she wrote.
The initiative was started in part because men in the Olin community approached the Women in Business (OWIB) team to ask how they could help combat gender disparities in business last fall. A survey conducted by the OWIB team revealed that students were indeed interested in being better supported and supporting their peers, preferably in small group discussions where they could be exposed to current events and hear from one another.
“We need to normalize conversations of inclusion and gender equity in order to achieve meaningful cultural change,” Kellman continued. “An ally is someone who takes active steps to advocate for a group that is not their own. That can take many forms..this is not a one-size-fits-all process and self-reflection is key.”
VIRTUAL REALITY HARASSMENT TRAINING AT CARNEGIE MELLON
On top of engaging men in becoming allies of gender equity at the workplace, universities and business schools are also becoming more open and active with informing students about actions they can take if they feel their rights have been infringed in some way.
At Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, students can practice how they would deal with being sexually harassed, witnessing sexual harassment, or help a friend who has experienced harassment. The school is working with an outside vendor to use virtual reality simulation to help students gain experience coping with potentially awkward and difficult situations and will launch the series in the new academic year this fall.
“Students put on a viewer and click into a simulation to practice how to identify harassment and how they can intervene,” says Leanne Meyer, executive director of the Accelerate Leadership Center at Tepper. “Virtual reality allows students to experience different situations both as a boss and employee, and lets them practice responding, which is a big fear for many people. They can play back their responses, get feedback, and get better at it.”
She added that because the topic can trigger plenty of emotional responses in people, the series is completely optional, focused on skill development, and no grades are involved. “Lots of students have said that they don’t want to talk about sexual harassment because it’s triggering for them to be in a room with people who may be cavalier about it,” Meyer says. The team is still trying to decide how long the series should run.
Tepper is also working to encourage conversation and dialogue around harassment. Meyer says that even among female students, conversation has revealed that students define harassment differently, and it’s important to unpack the terms that are being thrown around with the #MeToo movement. Students are given an opportunity to interact and learn from a lawyer that is brought to the school to help them sort out the legal differences between topics such as harassment and assault.
GOING BEYOND COMPANY POLICIES
The University of North Chapel at Chapel Hill, Kenan-Flagler Business School published a white paper on “How to Cleanse a Toxic Workplace” in 2014, defining “toxicity” as bullies for bosses and colleagues that may include sexual harassment among other types of harassment that creates a hostile working environment. With the #MeToo movement, their work has been revitalized, and on May 30th, Brandon Washington, the university’s Equal Opportunity & Compliance Director, will be leading a hourlong Lunch & Learn Session on the topic of Sexual Harassment Awareness and Response in the Workplace.
Beyond all the talk about how pervasive sexual harassment at the workplace really is, participants of the Kenan-Flagler session will also learn more about how to maintain a welcoming and equitable work environment. This means checking out workplace policies, learning how to report an incident, and knowing what constitutes sexual harassment instead of brushing it off as oversensitivity or “reading too much” into a comment or gesture.
Though with millennials who grew up with technology and social media moving into colleges across the nation, Meyer says the students need little to no guidance on how to suss out unhealthy workplaces. She says that though the school focuses mostly on getting students to figure out their values and what they stand for, she has learned from her experience with students that they are looking beyond what the companies are saying to decide if a workplace is healthy for the person they are and want to be.
“They know how to check out what companies stand for, what’s in the public, and what’s really happening,” Meyer says. “It’s important to look beyond what their policies are saying, at what’s real, and it seems that this generation of students know how to do this without much guidance.”