Tackling a ‘Macho’ Mentality at Work

How do you counter a culture that’s a breeding ground for harassment and discrimination?

By Dana Wilkie Sep 16, 2015
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They were two companies where the jobs were mostly blue-collar and labor-intensive, where women did work traditionally performed by men, and where physical strength and stamina were valued.

And at both companies, female employees banded together to file sometimes shocking charges of sexual harassment and discrimination—leading to millions of dollars in government settlements or plaintiffs’ awards.

This is the sort of nightmare every HR manager wants to avoid. Yet how can an HR department be effective in companies where a “macho” culture can be a breeding ground for sexual harassment and discrimination?

“I think it is harder for HR in these industries, because the discriminatory patterns are baked into the normal way of doing things,” said Stanford University law professor Richard Ford, who teaches civil rights and anti-discrimination law. “People simply assume that women aren’t competent, or think it’s normal to ask the woman in the room to make the coffee—even if she is of equal employment status. Some are uncomfortable working with women, or don’t know how to act toward a women as a professional.”

Two Recent EEOC Cases

In a Sept. 10, 2015, announcement, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said a federal jury had awarded $17.4 million to five former employees of Moreno Farms, a produce growing and packing operation in Felda, Fla., who had suffered sexual harassment and retaliation.

Two sons of the owner of Moreno Farms and a third male supervisor “engaged in graphic acts of sexual harassment against female workers in Moreno Farms’ packaging house, including regular groping and propositioning, threatening female employees with termination if they refused the supervisors’ sexual advances, and attempting to rape, and raping, multiple female employees,” the EEOC stated in a press release.

In a separate announcement on Sept. 9, 2015, the EEOC said that Consolidated Edison Company of New York must pay $3.8 million to resolve charges by some 300 female employees that the company subjected them to sexual harassment and sex discrimination.

The female employees—who worked with men out in the field in manholes, power stations and other positions involving physically strenuous activities—claimed they were: given subpar on-the-job training compared to their male peers; assigned menial, “make-work” tasks and isolated by male co-workers; refused or stonewalled after asking to attend classes necessary for promotions; denied tools or safety gear in situations where male co-workers were supplied with both; denied adequate sanitary and private restrooms, showers and changing facilities; subjected to disparate discipline compared to male co-workers; and given poorer performance evaluations than male peers for doing comparable work.

Sexual harassment and discrimination occur in all types of industries, but some workplace cultures can be more prone to such behavior than others, said Neena Chaudhry, senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center in Washington, D.C.

“I think it particularly seems to be a problem in fields where women have not traditionally been welcome,” she said. “It’s definitely a problem in these fields where women represent a tiny percentage of the workforce … [or] where women have not [historically] been present, so maybe there are stereotyped notions about a woman’s abilities.”

Ford agreed.

“Typically, these are … older, established industries that once had explicitly discriminatory policies or that discriminated fairly openly and set in place a culture of what you might call male supremacy,” he said. “Some have been slow to change that culture even after 50 years of employment discrimination laws.”

And an HR manager in such an industry may actually be part of the problem, Ford said.

“If the HR people are too much a part of the firm culture, they can reproduce the problems rather than solve them,” he said. “There are plenty of cases where HR is as dismissive of a woman claiming harassment as the harassers are.”

Taking on the Macho Mentality

So how can HR managers best discourage sex discrimination and harassment in male-oriented industries where a macho attitude is prevalent?

“One thing that we’ve found is that a clear, well-disseminated and easily accessible anti-harassment policy is key,” said Muslima Lewis, senior attorney advisor in the EEOC’s Office of Legal Counsel. “Also, the complaint process must be clearly disseminated and easily accessible so people not only know that they have the ability to complain, but that you have a process that encourages people to come forward.”

There must be regular anti-harassment and anti-discrimination training for employees and managers, and not just a one-time training session, she said.

“Even if you have individuals in an organization with antiquated ideas about gender roles, if you have an organizational culture that makes it clear that behaviors reflecting those attitudes won’t be tolerated, then you will have fewer complaints,” Lewis said.

Ford said it’s important in such workplace cultures to spell out clear do’s and don’ts, rather than just offering generalizations such as “Don’t discriminate.”

“After all, some of the culprits don’t think they are discriminating,” he said. “Hiring and promotion decisions should be transparent and criteria should be as objective as possible, and some of those decisions should be reviewed for fairness. Access to training and other paths to advancement should be open to all, or made available according to well-known and established criteria—not handed out on a case-by-case basis. These kinds of procedures can make workplaces more fair, without the need to read minds to figure out whether decisions are tainted by sexism.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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