How Business Schools Can Tackle the Issue of Sexual Harassment

How Business Schools Can Tackle the Issue of Sexual Harassment main image

Business schools have long been considered a boy’s club, meaning the subject of sexual harassment has rarely been addressed. But, in the age of #MeToo, academia, along with the rest of the world, is finally paying attention. This is especially important for business schools seeking to attract more women and reach gender parity, which is finally in reach for many programs.

Business school campuses serve as microcosms of the real world. These students are the future titans of business, and their behavior will help determine the culture of organizations. They will set the precedent for how offices are run and the kinds of policies by which employees abide. In that way, they set the rules for society and power structures. Sexual harassment at business school needs to be discussed.

Recently, Ann Tenbrunsel, a professor of business ethics at University of Notre Dame’s Mendoza College of Business, studied sexual harassment literature and applied her findings to sexual harassment in academia. In the Mendoza Business spring 2019 issue, Tenbrunsel outlined what she learned and provided insight on why sexual harassment is underreported in academia.

Here are some practical suggestions based on her findings about how business schools can teach sexual harassment protocol in the office and maintain civility and proper behavior on their own campuses:

Clearly define bad behavior

One of the reasons people don’t come forward with information or continue to behave badly is because they don’t know what is inappropriate. Perhaps, repetitive jokes or comments get overlooked even if colleagues or classmates feel uncomfortable. After all, no one is laying hands on anyone else. Is a touch on the shoulder off limits? A forced kiss or assault is obviously wrong. Other behaviors might be passed off as innocent or “not wrong enough”. As a result, defining bad behavior, writing it down, and educating the community are positive first steps. It helps people understand what activity should be avoided and reported.

Be transparent

Another misstep that organizations make is covering up or at least not sharing negative news with the community. Schools are businesses too, and they don’t want attention for sexual harassment. Sometimes, there are non-disclosure agreements or public relations protocols that keep people quiet about situations.

Most of the time this lack of transparency will only come back to bite an organization. After all, in the era of social media and 24-hour news cycles, keeping secrets is nearly impossible. Cover ups make it seem as though the organization is an accomplice to the harassment. It may also look as though they are protecting the perpetrator rather than the survivor. Most importantly, it sends the wrong message.

Being honest about what’s happening is one way to demonstrate certain behaviors are intolerable and therefore punishable. Of course, the school can also set the right precedent by being fair and sensitive to the survivor or person making the report, not rushing to judgment, and conducting thorough, transparent investigations. This sets a standard for everyone.

Leaders must take action

All too often – until recently – executives have turned a blind eye to sexual harassment charges. The same is true in academia and other fields; the tone and culture are set from the top. CEOs, deans, and student leaders have to speak up about sexual harassment and take action when they see it. Of course, they can’t be perpetrators themselves. They serve as role models, whose example helps establish rules and the standard to which others in the community will hold each other accountable. If people know the leader is on board, they might be more likely to report bad behavior, or avoid committing such acts in the first place.

Make people aware

Tenbrunsel explains that most people don’t realize they are failing to share or report sexual harassment. In addition to teaching them the definition of bad behavior, leaders in academia must also make students aware of the reasons people don’t report sexual harassment. Describe the fact that some people don’t recognize sexual harassment when they see it. Explain how power dynamics and a fear of retribution can contribute to silence. Show them how taking steps, such as having leaders speak up, can eliminate the obstacles blocking people from reporting their truth.

Make the conversation about ethics

One of the more interesting points Tenbrunsel makes is the fact that academics – just like corporate executives – look at sexual harassment charges solely as a legal function rather than an ethical one. “The problem,” she writes, “with this conceptualization is that it changes the perception about the behavior so the observer grapples with whether the act was illegal rather than was it harassment.”

What schools should do is consider the differences between right and wrong and talk to members of the community about potential, related ethical dilemmas they could face. At business school, professors have talked about ethics, business’ role in society, and the need to act for the greater good. They have analyzed case studies about those who have stolen from clients or lied and cheated their way to the top. They could be doing the same with issues related to gender equity and sexual harassment.

Tenbrunsel puts it best when she writes, “We should reframe sexual harassment from a legal to an ethical issue. It’s not different from someone committing fraud.”

This article was originally published on LinkedIn.

Nunzio Quacquarelli

Nunzio is the founder and CEO of QS. Following completion of his own MBA from the Wharton School, he has gone on to become a leader in education management with over 25 years of experience in the industry. He is truly passionate about education and firmly believes in the QS mission to help young people to fulfill their potential through educational achievement, international mobility and career development. 

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