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While this post is for supporting members, please do feel free to share this one in particular — especially if you know anyone who might be willing to share the Toronto Tech Study in their network.
I’m also opening this post to everyone on the internet. My goal is to maximize your ability to share it — if you’re so inclined, no pressure — in the last days researchers are gathering data for the study.
What follows is a transcript of my conversation with Jane Watson about the study. I’ve edited the transcript for clarity — and I edited the audio of our conversation for length and clarity.
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Anne (intro): The opposite of wisdom is doing the same thing over, and over, and over again, and expecting a different result.
I’m Anne Libby, and this is audio for issue 38 of my newsletter, On Management, which you’ll find at people.substack.com.
Way back in October of 1991, I was home sick with the flu. The Anita Hill hearings were on TV.
Professor Hill’s experience was entirely credible to me. Because I, too, had seen hideous behavior in an elite workplace. Fast forward to the Spring of 2017, and #MeToo stories were breaking.
Over, and over, and over again.
I noticed that too many of these stories included people who had been harassed, bullied, and assaulted in the workplace, and who had gone to management and HR for help — and not received it.
That spring, I spent a lot of time thinking, writing, and talking with people about behaviors and conditions that leaders could watch out for, if they wanted to avoid creating hostile workplaces.
This time, I’m joined by Jane Watson. Jane was also doing some serious thinking in 2017. She’s a Toronto-based HR professional, and founder of The Aperta Project, an initiative that’s helping organizations to rethink sexual harassment. Jane has more than 15 years of leadership experience in HR; including roles in startups, not-for-profits, and public companies. She’s currently collaborating with the Cynefin Centre on a study of sexual harassment in the Toronto Tech sector.
Jane and I talk about the approach that she and her collaborators are taking with the Toronto Tech Study, which seems to me to be quite different from other interventions meant to stem the tide of harassment.
I hope you’ll enjoy our conversation.
Anne: So Jane, how did you come to this project?
Jane: Well in 2017, when #MeToo was really hitting the headlines; Weinstein and some of the other really egregious scandals were happening. I was really struck by how many of those stories involved folks that had gone to their HR departments. And whether it was willful ignorance, or they were just asleep at the wheel, or they didn't feel that they were empowered to act. Because I work in HR and I've been working in HR for about 15 years, it was really troubling to me that we seemed as a profession not to be having the impact on sexual harassment that that certainly we intend to have.
And so, I really spent a lot of time reading and trying to understand why -- after so many years of policies, and training, and investigations, and really trying to make a change in organizations -- that sexual harassment, generally speaking, still seemed to be such a pervasive problem in organizations.
During that time, I made a very serendipitous connection, via Twitter, with a couple of researchers in the UK who were who were really interested in this issue as well. And that's Ellie Snowden and Anna Hanchar, who work closely with the Cynefin Institute, and they were looking to do a project to really dig in, a study, and look at sexual harassment.
And so we sort of joined forces. In discussions, I brought up the idea: why would we not maybe take a look at the Toronto Tech sector?
So Toronto Tech is growing really fast -- faster, even than Silicon Valley -- and it's such a diverse city here in Toronto. It seemed to make a lot of sense to look at this issue here in Toronto. And to see if there wasn't something that we could learn from Silicon Valley, and do deliberately and intentionally different with our tech sector.
Anne: Well, it seems to me that a lot of the actions out of tech here in the US have been: Ready. Fire. Aim. Right? Like, let's put together a committee. Let's teach people how to have these conversations. Let's act.
And what I really appreciated about your process: it seemed and felt different to me.
You had read about this, you had delved into this, and you've decided to approach this in a different way. Instead of coming up with an intervention that you're going to apply, you're actually being a little bit more curious and thoughtful.
Does that resonate for you? And if so, can you speak to that a little bit?
Jane: Yeah, that definitely resonates for me. What has happened, it seems to me, in organizations, when it relates to things like sexual harassment, is that we've, over time, evolved to have this very adversarial stance with folks that are raising concerns.
I think that's a product of taking a very legal lens to look at this, right? Which is, it's quite prescriptive, what we're required to do by law. And it seems that we've, in most organizations, anyway, seem to have focused on that compliance standard versus thinking more broadly about the type of prevention that might be required.
And so yes, I think that there tends to be this response that we need to kind of optimize the typical approaches that are primarily informed by legal standards. And it seems to me very much that those haven't worked.
Jane: Right? And so I think that I think there does need to be this kind of humility and curiosity that we have to bring back to this issue. And a big part of that is really trying to understand the difference between how our policies and our practices imagine sexual harassment to happen, versus the actual experience of what that's like. And I think there's a pretty big gap there actually.
Anne: Yeah. Yeah. It sounds like there is, just even from reading press reports, but also knowing that we don't hear about so much of what happens.
Jane: Yeah, I know absolutely. The stats are I think pretty similar between the US and Canada: about 70% of harassment goes unreported. And that's obviously different in different organizations and it will vary across industries, but that's staggering.
So “best practices” are sort of focused on a third of incidents that we actually hear about. And even there, that's reactive: it's after the fact and quite often with the prescriptive steps that we need to take under the law.
So things like, doing an investigation and taking action based on our findings. I've been doing that for 15 years and I can tell you that it's so frustrating. Because yes, you might be checking the boxes that are required of you. But it often leaves scorched-earth in its wake.
So you're going through this process that can feel quite bureaucratic, to those involved, quite uncaring, and sometimes quite adversarial. And at the end, it's really difficult to say “Well that's worth it. Now, we can return to having this is respectful and harmonious work environment." I just don't think that it does that. Those approaches don't take into account the reality: there's a lot of emotions, and psychological damage, that can be generated by just doing what we're supposed to, under the law.
Anne: Right, right. So, you're hoping to gather information from people. How are you casting a net to do that? And how can people who are listening to this help?
Jane: Oh, I really appreciate that question. I'm asking for a lot of help these days with this project.
The net that I'm casting primarily is through my network, and the network that I tried to build over the last several months as this project has been unfolding in Toronto Tech, to say, "Here's what I'm trying to achieve." And it is it is to benefit the tech sector.
This is not intended to be some kind of exposé. It really is intended to try to bring a new awareness and understanding. And so I think people have been almost universally really supportive. There's been lots of shares on social media, and a lot of people who I'm really grateful for who’ve reached out and said, "Hey, I've shared this with my entire network via emails or privately, and encouraged them to complete the study."
And so certainly, if anyone is listening who has connections in Toronto Tech, or who works in that sector: it would be fantastic to have them consider sharing it with their network. And of course if they have their own experience with sexual harassment in the Toronto Tech sector, considering sharing their story by participating in the study.
Anne: How long will the study be open for?
Jane: We're going to keep it open actually for three months (until August 24) which is which is longer than you know, a typical survey would be open. I've learned a ton from collaborating with Ellie and Anna, with the Cynefin Centre, and this is really intended to be a study. We're looking to get as many different diverse perspectives and experiences as we can. So it's going to be a little bit of a longer collection period, and I'm going to be doing a lot of outreach during those three months. And then in the fall, we’ll bring back some analysis of that data and hopefully strike a working group.
Anne: So, a question in your FAQs, "What are you going to do with the information you're collecting as part of this study," really drew me into what I thought was your thought process. Can you talk a little bit more about that?
Jane: Definitely. Before I began speaking with Ellie and Anna about their interest in this topic, I kept coming back to the idea that we were using these really simple kind of straightforward superficial interventions, almost, like compliance training to try to address what is a super-complex problem.
Right? So, some of your listeners may have read, or heard someone say, that sexual harassment often isn't about sex. It's about it's about power. And a lot of the research supports that sexual harassment isn't about sort of inappropriate sexual desire. Quite often it's a means, it's a strategy to reinforce dominance. And that is a very complex dynamic that exists, and it certainly extends beyond the walls of our organizations.
And so I began at the time really thinking more about systems. I revisited a lot of things that I'd read about systems thinking earlier in my career, trying to understand how that might be a good lens to look at this problem through. And I'm not the first person to have done that. But, more and more, I became convinced that there needed to be a process that helps different stakeholders in organizations to see themselves within this system, in relation to sexual harassment.
Anyone who's done a lot of reading around systems thinking will know that one of the things about a complex system is that we can all have good intentions as stakeholders, as actors in that system, we can all play our role the way we’re quote-unquote supposed to. And the outcome can still be one that we don't want.
So, these unintended consequences of simple interventions can have ripple effects in the organization in ways that we don't intend, that we don't want, but can still happen. To me, the approaches we've been taking with respect to sexual harassment are having unintended consequences, for targets, for victims of harassment.
And so the idea with this data, these stories, is to bring it back to a group of diverse stakeholders, diverse actors, within the tech sector. So by that I mean, leaders of tech organizations, HR folks in tech organizations, employees in tech organizations. And then, looking even more broadly, beyond the walls of individual organizations. We’re thinking about how we can engage with folks who are working in accelerators or incubators -- there are several here in Toronto that are fostering the next generation of tech companies. There are a lot of different support groups here, and advocacy groups, within the Toronto Tech community. So, groups like Venture Out that support LGBTQ+ folks in tech; Move the Dial which supports women in tech; and a whole range of others. So, inviting them into the conversation, and also looking into the venture capital space, and trying to invite some viewpoints in from there.
So my ideal scenario, which I'm working towards at the moment, is convening some working groups that represent those different viewpoints, so that when the data comes back -- data from our own backyard, right here in Toronto -- we can start to understand how our different intentions, different agendas and interactions are having these unintended consequences that allow harassment to persist.
So this is an ambitious goal, but I truly think that with respect to complex problems like this, we need to have the awareness of how different parts of that system interact for us to think of strategies and interventions that are not going to just produce other negative consequences, in other parts of the system.
Anne: Right? More mundanely, you talked about facilitated workshops. Would the workshops be used to process the information? How do you envision that to sort of roll out?
Jane: Yeah, I definitely think that there will be an element of helping people absorb the information that's come back, and see it.
So, for most people listening, they will likely not have seen what the study looks like. But the Cynefin Centre is based around methodology related to Dave Snowden's Cynefin framework. And so, it is about complex environments.
The context that it's trying to collect, it's quite visual. So, it invites people who are who are responding to the study to position stones within a triad to indicate how factors influence the situation that they're reporting. And so, that will produce some really interesting visual analysis, and heat maps that people can look at, and then drill down into individual stories.
So, the workshops will need to spend some time helping people sift through the data and understand how to ingest it, and how to draw insights from it. So that will be a big part of it. And then, I'd like to ideally start bringing in some of the perspectives that I was mentioning from different stakeholders in these diverse roles, to try to understand how they might be influencing, or could influence, different approaches to addressing sexual harassment.
Anne: Wow. This is kind of an obvious question, maybe, but sort of a loaded one. How will you engage with men, or how are you reaching out to men around this?
Jane: Yeah. That is a that's a great question. And I will highlight a couple of things. So first, and this is something that I've been really mindful about when I speak about sexual harassment publicly, or when I write about it: the most recent research in Canada suggests that about 20% of Canadian men say that they've experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. I know that there are some similar stats in the US, related to how many complaints that EEOC gets every year about sexual harassment. And I was also surprised at the number of those that came that came from men. And so that's a real thing.
I think, not every time I speak about it publicly, but more often than not, people approach me afterwards to share their experiences. I've been approached by several men who have shared that they themselves have experienced sexual harassment. So, on the one hand, it's important to acknowledge that that men can be harassed as well. And so, to engage with them is to make sure that they understand that they are absolutely invited to share their experiences in this survey.
More broadly, I've been very fortunate to have a lot of support from men in tech who I've spoken to about this this study. I've had a number of people really be good champions of the study and have shared it broadly and spoken in support very publicly about it, which is wonderful.
And then, beyond that, whether you're in an organization or more broadly -- with a study like this, what I'm experiencing is that it's really important to speak about it in a way that brings us to the organizational perspective, and it doesn't position it as a gender war. Because that's not productive to anyone.
Certainly the research is there, and the stats are there, about the extent to which harassers are typically male. But I do think that there's very little to be gained by engaging in that binary dynamic, which can definitely come up in discussions about this topic. I think that it's far more useful to focus on the cost that it has not only to targets of harassment, but to bystanders in an organization, which are obviously people of all genders.
Anne: Well, I've gotten into a couple of conversations with people, men, in my age cohort, whose response to almost any discussion of sexual harassment -- and again, I'm speaking of these particular people -- always goes to the fear of being accused wrongly. And then, having your career dashed, because you would be accused wrongly.
It leads to the conversation about, "Now men are afraid to mentor women because they don't want to be alone with them." And I guess, one of the things that gives me hope is that people in the younger generation than my cohort seem less likely -- again in my circles, obviously, and I have very small circles -- but they seem more open to a less fear-based discussion about it.
So, I think the fears around what might happen are very real, and I don't have an answer to them, or expect you to, but I'm lobbing it out there, not as a question, but more as an editorial comment.
Jane: Yeah. Gosh, it really does come up a lot for me, too. And I find that, I'm not sure why, but from my experience, it's less tied to age. I hear that from young men as well.
Anne: Oh wow.
Jane: Yeah. I find that, on the one hand, I work in an organization. I think it's absolutely super important on a micro level, on an individual situation level, to be thorough in examining concerns that are raised. Because people need to have confidence that, as an organization, we're being objective, and that we are being thorough, fair, and having a just process.
And on the other hand, if I zoom out to a macro level, and I'm sure you're well aware of this, Anne, the stats around false complaints — there's not a lot around organizational sexual harassment. For the closest equivalent, which would be people reporting sexual assault: the stats around false reports seem to suggest that it's not any more common than false reports about the theft, for example.
So, it's a really small number, I've seen stats from like 4% to 7%, and I'm sure there's other stats as well.
So on a macro level, it's important to acknowledge the reality: there isn't a huge amount of reason for us to believe that false reporting is a common occurrence. And, at the same time, that doesn't mean that those of us that have that responsibility in organizations, that we are not doing our due diligence. So those two things need to be sort of true at once, I suppose.
But yeah, I have to say that people who say that they're worried about mentoring women now, I always want to ask, and I don't always ask the question, "Great. So, how many women were you mentoring two years ago, and could I talk to them about how much that helped their career?" Because I feel like a lot of those men who are like, I don't mentor women anymore because I'm afraid — maybe they weren't mentoring women before.
Anne: Right. Having grown up in financial services in the 90s, almost all of the people above me in the food chain were men. So almost all of my mentors were men, and I don't ever remember any of those men having issues about it. Maybe I was just sort of clueless, and didn't notice that that they were having issues with it. I don't know. It's a whole interesting thing.
But, I have no solutions, and again, when we start talking about it from our own experience -- as I am, right -- and we all start from our own experience, you know, it negates what else might be out there.
So I'm glad to hear that you are in command of the statistics, because I'm an N of 1 thinking about what streams out from me, and it's only one small place in the world. So I'm glad you're out there doing this.
My favorite last question is always, "Is there anything I should have asked you, or anything else that you want to say about this topic?"
Jane: Hmm. Only that I think that a key part of this for me, and one that runs really counter to the way that I think HR is accustomed to operating, unfortunately, is, the drum that I'm banging is, how much we need employees to be involved in this conversation. We really need to hear from employees early, not after something's happened, when they're sitting across the desk from us as a quote-unquote complainant. Right?
So the idea that this is not a problem that we're going to predict and control and solve top-down. It really is something that needs to be more participatory with employees: to surface their own experience, their expertise on what it's like to be in our organizations, and to deal with those power dynamics. And so the study is one attempt to bring that voice in, in a way that's safe for employees.
But more broadly, I just think that's something that we could do more of -- even without a study -- in organizations.
And so that's been the drum that I've been banging for a while with my fellow HR professionals, and it's not exclusive to this issue. I just think there's way more opportunity for us to step back and say "Hey maybe our best practices that we want to adopt and copy from you know, any of the “Insert big tech company name here”, maybe we really need to start looking to our employees as sources of wisdom and information. Not just through a survey, but actually inviting them in as sort of partners to discuss this stuff.
Anne (conclusion): Definitions for “hostile workplaces” and even “sexual harassment” were barely on the radar in the early 1990s. We’ve spent the post-Anita Hill decades iterating on social norms, regulations, and quote-diversity efforts-endquote.
The collective hours spent in training sessions probably add up to a significant economic impact. If only the social impact were commensurate.
And yet as Jane points out, we haven’t solved it. A different approach is called for. I’m excited about what The Aperta Project and Cynefin Centre are doing!
The Toronto Tech study will be open through August, 24, 2019. You’ll find it at theapertaproject.com/study. If you’re part of Toronto Tech, I hope you’ll participate, and if you have network in Toronto, I hope you’ll share the project with your folks.
And no matter where you live, where you work, keep your eye on Jane Watson and her colleagues Eleanor Snowden and Anna Hanchar. I’m anticipating great things.
Big thanks to Jane for making time to talk with me late on a summer Friday afternoon. You can find Jane and her writing at her blog, talentvanguard.com. She has been writing about people, organizations, culture, and the future of work at Talent Vanguard since 2012.
I’ll link to the study, Jane’s writing, and more in the newsletter, at people.substack.com. The music you're hearing is Robot Crambo by Doctor Turtle, and thanks also to the staff at the Launch Pad, where I recorded this audio. I’m Anne Libby, this is On Management. Thank you so much for listening, and I’ll see you next time. Bye bye.