Tackling misogyny at work: Legal and educational solutions

  • Business & Management
  • Election 24

Dr Lauren McCarthy, City, University of London, and Professor Scott Taylor, University of Birmingham 

In this piece, Dr Lauren McCarthy, City, University of London, and Professor Scott Taylor, University of Birmingham, discuss legal and educational solutions for addressing misogyny at work.

The problem

The most recent misogyny at work news focused on a report that wraps up two critical inquiries into sexism and sexual harassment within the RAF. The report authors show us an organisation where women are being “viewed as property”, continually dealing with unwanted touching and unsolicited messaging. A deep-rooted drinking culture, the normalisation of sexualised banter, and countless other contributions to denigrating women, all contribute to a workplace where women feel the need to band together on “shark watch” to avoid the advances of a small minority of men.

This report grimly echoes others on workplace sexism and misogyny, published more or less weekly. The highest profile of these, Baroness Casey’s review into the Metropolitan Police Force in the aftermath of Sarah Everard’s rape, abduction and murder by a serving police officer, is the highest profile. Baroness Casey called out a “boys’ club” where disparaging comments about women and ethnic minorities, at work and outside it, were accepted every day occurrences. Almost all workplaces seem to be affected – professional sports, notably horse racing and football, banking and finance, higher education, parts of the fire service, and of course the UK’s government. These are only the high profile cases, newsworthy because of a high profile organisation or individual – they tell us that misogynistic behaviours are commonplace in all workplaces, part of the everyday experience of half of the working population, with serious implications for inclusivity, productivity, and wellbeing.

In a newly published peer-reviewed article that builds on the groundbreaking work of philosopher Kate Manne, we argue that what we are seeing here is a specific issue that we term organisational misogyny. This is a new way of describing workplaces that enable and contribute to the policing and control of women and non-binary people through tolerance of misogynistic practices. Just this year, we’ve  read about the humiliation and harassment of women in sectors spanning entertainment, restaurants, and within Britain’s largest business association, the CBI. We also know that misogyny at work can in some cases lead to outright violence, including sexual and physical attacks. This is a serious problem with real effects on people that can and must be addressed, and legislation and education both have a key role to play.

The solution

The key challenge to developing a solution here is that workplaces reflect the societies we live in. Gendered expectations, including misogynistic behaviours towards women and non-binary people, may be slowly shifting, but this is happening too slowly and they still frame decision-making throughout careers. Tackling misogyny at work is much more than changing the culture of an organisation or profession, or simply changing a small number of staff. The Met Police forces’ attempt to layoff serving officers guilty of misogynistic behaviours and recruit more diverse people is positive, but it’s been tried before unsuccessfully, precisely because it focuses on ‘bad apples’ and creates an expectation that the ‘diverse’ recruits will change the culture (placing responsibility on those experiencing the hate to fix it).

We are therefore suggesting it is easier to think about making society less misogynistic, using tried-and-tested legislation and educational initiatives to demonstrate it is unacceptable and will not be tolerated. The Scottish government has started this process, commissioning the Kennedy Review, and we are seeing some innovative adult educational efforts, again in Scotland and also in London. Adopting this legislative approach in the wider UK and mandating formal educational means to reach young men and boys, would mean that we stop reading these depressing, repetitive, sad reports in the news of yet another workplace that permits misogyny to damage the organisation, its reputation, its work, and its employees. Law and education reform are not the obvious ways to make workplace change happen, but in this case, they are the quickest and most effective, especially when we see how sticky these behaviours are, and the effect they have on our workplaces.

About the authors

Dr Lauren McCarthy is Senior Lecturer in Corporate Social Responsibility and Director of ETHOS: The Centre for Responsible Enterprise at Bayes Business School (formerly Cass), City, University of London. Her research explores gender and responsible business across a spectrum of organisation and supply chain contexts.

Dr Scott Taylor is Professor of Leadership & Organization Studies at Birmingham Business School, University of Birmingham. His research currently focuses on misogyny at work and in leadership practice.

Image Credit: Charles Forerunner, Unsplash