Reality check

Sexual harassment research by Wright State faculty member Rachel Sturm featured in Harvard Business Review

Research by Rachel Sturm, associate professor of management at Wright State, on sexual harassment in the workplace was featured in the Harvard Business Review. (Photos by Erin Pence)

The prestigious Harvard Business Review has highlighted a study by Rachel Sturm, associate professor of management at Wright State University, and her co-researchers on sexual harassment in workplaces around the country.

An account of the study appears in the September-October issue of the magazine’s IdeaWatch, a section that features important, cutting-edge research.

“The impact of it was huge. We had a firestorm response,” said Sturm. “We were contacted by news media from around the world.”

Sturm’s 2018 survey on attitudes toward workplace sexual harassment came in the wake of the #MeToo movement. The movement began to spread virally in October 2017 as a hashtag on social media in an attempt to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment, especially in the workplace.

Sturm and the other researchers created two surveys — one for men and one for women — and distributed them to workers in a wide range of industries, collecting data from 152 men and 303 women.

Sturm said the surveys found a lot of agreement and overlap between men and women on the definition of sexual harassment. The study also suggested that women are not being overly sensitive about harassment.

“These are serious concerns that they are talking about,” said Sturm. “At the same time, we know that men know what harassment is.”

The study also suggested that people were not as optimistic about positive changes being made in the workplace as was being portrayed in the media.

“What we were concerned with are women going to be held back or excluded from leadership positions because of all this attention to harassment and #MeToo? That’s essentially what we found,” said Sturm.

A total of 74% of the women said they thought they would now be more willing to speak out against harassment, and 77% of men anticipated being more careful about potentially inappropriate behavior.

But more than 10% of both men and women said they thought they would be less willing than previously to hire attractive women, 22% of men and 44% of women predicted that men would be more apt to exclude women from social interactions, such as after-work drinks, and nearly one in three men thought they would be reluctant to have a one-on-one meeting with a woman.

Sturm and her fellow researchers conducted another survey in 2019, looking at behaviors of exclusion.

In that survey, 19% of men said they were reluctant to hire attractive women, 21% said they were reluctant to hire women for jobs involving close interpersonal interactions with men, and 27% said they avoided one-on-one meetings with female colleagues.

Sturm said the workers seemed more likely to speak up about sexual harassment and exclusion. But she said that type of behavior is still tolerated in some organizations and that the tolerance often stems from their leaders.

“How the leader responds is really key, whether they respond quickly, which is important,” said Sturm. “So we see some positive attitudes and behaviors in terms of that. But they were not as great as we thought they would be.”

Sturm provides more details about her studies in a blog post for the Business Article Series of 1388 Consulting.

One of Sturm’s recommendations to combat sexual harassment at work is to focus on character development, which she studies and teaches about. She is in the early stages of developing a character coaching program.

Character consists of a set of virtues that benefits both the individual and the people in that person’s orbit. It cuts across generational and cultural divides.

Virtues examined in the survey included courage and integrity. But those virtues need to be developed along with accountability, drive, transcendence, temperance, justice, collaboration, humanity, judgment and humility, Sturm said.

Rachel Sturm recommends that organizations and companies combat sexual harassment at work by focusing on character development.

Hiring people who have a strong set of virtues minimizes the possibility of there being a sexual harassment issue, Sturm said.

“We can help them with character development and bring their attention to possible blind spots when it comes to sexual harassment,” she said.

Once employers establish that prospective employees have the technical skills for the job, she said, then they should begin to look at character. That way character becomes embedded in the policies of the organization and trickles from the top down, she said.

Sturm grew up on Long Island, New York. Her mother is a physician and her late father was an aerospace engineer at Northrop Grumman. After graduating from Commack High School, Sturm earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology with minors in management and international studies from the State University of New York at Binghamton. She earned a Ph.D. in business management from the University of Houston before joining the faculty at Wright State in 2014.

Sturm says she has always been interested in leadership, which cuts across industry and organizations.

“I like looking at people and companies and understanding their behavior. That’s where the psychology comes in,” she said. “It’s this intersection between psychology and business that has been in my life since high school and that I kept following in college and grad school.”

Sturm works in the Department of Management and International Business in the Raj Soin College of Business and teaches leadership development courses.

“It’s helping students learn how to thrive as managerial leaders,” she said.

Sturm hopes the results of her sexual harassment studies help explain the complexity of human behavior and inspire people to become better versions of themselves.

“We are multidimensional and multifaceted,” she said. “To look at someone just as a sexual object or someone in terms of their emotions or their intellect, you are just missing out. The full person is so beautiful.”

Sturm is in the process of pursuing a coaching license to better help people develop their character. She will accept new clients in the summer. For more information, contact her at rsturm2@gmail.com.

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