Have Times Really Changed?
A Metta Space interview with three executive leaders about sexual harassment, gender discrimination and the change in our workplace
We like to think that times have changed. We like to think that our society is changing and improving. In the workplace, discrimination, gender inequality and sexual harassment are starting to be phased out.
But while we like to think and say that, we cannot always be sure that it is the case. Instead of stating facts and disclosing research, we wanted to investigate how times really have changed - if so. We therefore asked three women who have been working in different fields for the last 20-30 years, have risen in their ranks and started their own companies, what they thought.
Has the workplace really improved? Has the workplace become less hostile, less toxic? Has sexual harassment in the workplace really decreased over the last years?
What was it like being a woman in a Directorate or Executive position?
Carmen Morales: Carmen built a company with four other male partners. Very early on she realised there were sexist and machista comments being thrown around, especially about the new female talent hired. This was disturbing since “as a company we were dedicated to talent, but the men seemingly hired only based on looks” - for the women, that is.
Carmen Sanmartin de Castro: Carmen was the only woman on a whole leadership committee. In that position she “had to listen to some sexist comment or machista incident every week”.
How good looking the new girl was, how one employee had better looks than another. And if she used her leadership role to give orders or assert herself, they made rude comments to her. All because she was flexing the leadership muscle that she was now a part of.
Do you think sexual harassment in the workplace has changed in the last years?
Mariel Isakson: “The harassment is less evident than it used to be. Before, it was more physical because there were less consequences. Now, it tends to be more subtle”.
A new generation has also swept into the workforce that sees some things as harassment that a different generation might not. Thus, it is a matter of understanding these behaviours - this inter-generational difference. People in their 30s and late 40s do still continue to perpetrate more subtle harassment. Meanwhile, the newer generation sees this type of behaviour as unacceptable in a working environment.
Carmen M.: As a young woman, she experienced a lot of help from her team, but this help would always be coupled with expected favours. “You constantly had to find excuses and reasons to not be confrontative. You could not confront others - you could lose your job, or be labelled problematic”.
Carmen S.: “In the last eight to ten years there definitely has been a change. There are more people that tell Human Resources what has happened, more who report”.
Is there any incident of sexual harassment that you remember in particular?
Carmen M.: There were many types of situations with the typical touchy type of sexual harasser that when you confronted him about his inappropriate behaviour, he would start talking badly about you and spreading rumours and gossip about you.
One particular story she remembers was at a job interview when she was just 23 years old. The person who interviewed her was quite high up in the ranks. They were alone in the building. As she left the interview and stepped into the elevator, the interviewer made an advance on her. “I could not react, I was paralysed. Imagine what that did to all my subsequent job interviews”.
Mariel: In terms of gendered discrimination, her boss told her that she would not rise above her current rank. Ever. She also experienced what one could call moral harassment. She was not aware of the climate and environment that was so toxic until she left.
"It was that toxic environment that allowed that type of harassment to occur in the first place".
Do you believe that your field and how dominated it is by men
influenced the amount of sexual harassment that occurred?
Carmen S.: “A determining factor is the culture of the company”. In big banks or consulting groups, where people die for longer working hours, there tends to be more harassment. However, where there traditionally have been more women than men, the culture was already created differently. That has still left a mark.
Mariel: “Although we have become more gender equal, there is not as much gender equality rising through the pyramid ranks”. In associate or senior levels, men did not have to rise through the ranks as much as women. And at the end of the day, sexual harassment is also about power.
Do you believe that your experience with sexual harassment has
changed in your current higher ranking position?
“With age one learns to become hyper-aware. Since we were little girls we have had to learn to read signals that men have not had to read. With the passing of the years, you put up with nonsense less and you have tools to stop it” - Mariel
In the position that Mariel is in now, she says that one has the power to control the situation. She has not experienced any sexual harassment in her actual position as the head of a company. She has learnt to be more forceful, and to just simply laugh at the harassers when they attempt it. But that has taken her years to learn. And many women may never get to that type of a position.
Carmen S.: “The experience that you gain is a degree in itself. And it helps you control situations”. In her current position, she has therefore not had any experience with sexual harassment. The power and experience in this type of situation lets you control the beginning, middle and end to any incident.
What advice do you have for the next generation entering the workforce
- especially young women?
Carmen M.: “Learn to read the signs. It is important to have your own confidence and give yourself credit”. She urges younger women to not excuse other people's behaviour.
“Take care of your own interests and create plan Bs to always be prepared”
Carmen S.: “Any conduct that you might find suspicious, communicate it. Learn to be assertive”.
Mariel: “Be aware of each situation - of what is happening. Try to be assertive without being confrontative”. She advises younger women to learn to stop the incident from happening before it turns to more. To believe in oneself and communicate how you feel in the moment that it occurs.
What do you think about a reporting system, such as Metta Space?
“Metta Space is great because it creates an awareness of sexual harassment in the workplace in the first place” - Carmen S.
Mariel: “Knowing that a reporting system such as yours exists, will already pull back the behaviour, because harassers know that there could be consequences”.
Carmen Sanmartin de Castro: Carmen has worked in Human Resources for over 30 years in the financial sector and in director positions. She is now the head of her own company, Selecciona Recursos Humanos and has been heading it for the last 13 years. This company focuses on different sectors with a specialisation in the banking industry.
Carmen Morales Sanchez - Carmen has a background in corporate psychology and has worked in all the Big 4 Consulting companies, in multinational oil and gas companies, and multinational consulting companies. For the last 15 years she has owned her own consulting company called Almagesto. She also works in executive coaching and is a professor at IE University.
Mariel Isakson - Mariel has a background in political science, but has been working in Human Resources, executive search and recruitment for the last 20 years. In the last 10 years, she has owned her own company called Laute Consulting.
They have all worked together on projects with companies such as Santander, Caixa Bank, and in sectors such as leadership and development. All of them however realised that they had to create their own businesses because there was no future in bigger companies for people like them - women with character and big dreams.
Interview led and article written by: Paula Koller-Alonso, Head of R&D at Metta Space