Author Q&A with Sylvia Ann Hewlett: #MeToo in the Corporate World

Sylvia Ann Hewlett shares with us the impact of the #MeToo movement in corporate America and provides concrete action to help executives and companies.

When we had the opportunity to discuss with economist and award-winning author Sylvia Ann Hewlett her latest book, #MeToo in the Corporate World: Power, Privilege, and the Path Forward (HarperBusiness), we didn’t hesitate. She blends vivid stories with powerful new data in assessing the impact of the #MeToo movement in corporate America—and she gives powerful and actionable tips and steps for leaders to implement and follow.


How can companies make the fight against sexual misconduct in their respective workplaces a priority in 2020 and beyond?

First, it’s critical for companies to understand that sexual misconduct can be very expensive.  In this book, I quantify the hits to the bottom line and walk the reader through some vivid examples. Take, for example, the cost of lawsuits and settlements: for Google, these costs now exceed $300 million, and for Michigan State University they exceed $1 billion. Larry Nasar did terrible things to those young gymnasts and the organization is being held accountable as well as the perpetrator.

These financial hits are driving real change. After interviewing dozens of senior executives—in the public as well as the private sector—I’m able to identify ten action steps for individuals and ten action steps for organizations that are proving effective in tamping down the incidence of sexual misconduct at work. I show how these action steps play out on the ground using examples that range from American Express to IBM to Fox News to the Catholic Church.


You report in your book that 83% of women now say that those who report being victims of sexual assault should be given the benefit of the doubt, while 72% of men believe this as well. How can we—both as individuals and as companies—continue to support this positive shift in perception/belief in survivors?

Skepticism and disbelief sharpen the pain of victims and oftentimes causes them to quit a job or abandon a career—which creates immense damage to individuals and the organizations they work for.  I know this from my own bitter experience. As a young consultant, I was targeted by a senior executive at my firm who showed up at my cubicle one Friday and demanded a “hand job” at the end of a working day. I refused and he became more abusive, cornering me in the copying room and ripping off my blouse. In my new book, I tell this story and describe the fallout.  Knowing the power of this man, I understood there was no point reporting these incidents to HR.  I consulted a long time mentor, who reluctantly advised me to “get out of there.  Sebastian’s a prick, but he’s a big rain-maker and untouchable.”  With great regret, I took my mentor’s advice and both resigned from my job and left this male-dominated field.  The consequences were costly.  I ended up in a much less fulfilling (and lower-paying) career, and management consulting—a field that desperately needs “gender smarts” around decision making tables—lost a promising female talent.


What’s your advice to young women navigating a male-dominated workplace or industry? How should she proceed if the feeling is that senior men just look to avoid interactions with her?

My advice to young female and young male talent is simple: signal that you’re a safe bet and a serious contender.  Here are three pointers out of the ten action steps I highlight in my book:

  • Meet with your boss or your sponsor in the company cafeteria or the hotel business center—not in bars late at night.
  • Don’t dress in ways that convey sexual availability. For men (and remember, men—particularly men of color—are also at risk) too tight pants or visible chest hair are not a good idea.  For women, it’s the usual list.
  • Find a sponsor as well as a mentor.  Senior-level advocacy is essential if you are to get from the middle to the top.  Despite the backlash, there are still a ton of great leaders out there (women as well as men) who understand the enormous value of Diversity and Inclusion and are willing to take a bet on you—if you meet them halfway.  (I lay out how to do this in chapter 8.)


How can your book help HR teams lend a hand in the conversation of the #MeToo movement within workplaces so that everyone’s voices, needs, and concerns are heard (even male victims, etc.)?

HR needs to move its center of gravity from containment and coverup to the proactive promotion of inclusion. This is a big shift, but it’s beginning to happen. In the book, I describe the journey Fox News has been on over the last two years and point to some surprising successes.  A new HR and D&I team led by Kevin Lord and Marsheila Hayes is turning this culture around for women and diverse employees. Cisco, Intel, and IPG are other standout examples. Key elements in these new approaches are: zero tolerance for serious sexual misconduct, upgraded training programs, confidential “warm” as well as “hot” lines, due process, and a willingness to use external investigators.


With 13% of men reporting that they’ve been sexually harassed in the workplace and 34% of women reporting the same, do you think the #MeToo movement will help decrease the numbers of assault cases and harassment victims in the workplace?

The #MeToo movement has accomplished a great deal, including lifting a heavy burden of pain and shame for millions of women and transforming public opinion. Three-quarters of Americans now believe that victims should be given the benefit of the doubt in sexual misconduct cases—up 25% since 2017.  However, the movement needs to “widen its tent.”

As my new data shows, 13 percent of white-collar male employees also experience sexual harassment and black men, black women and LGBTQ+ women are particular targets of sexual assault. Yet these other victims have been largely silent (only 3% of black males report) and the poignant interviews in my book tell us why: people of color and LGBTQ+ employees are even more fearful of humiliation, retaliation, and ridicule than white women.  In addition, they don’t feel that their voices have a home in the #MeToo movement.  I hope this book will help change that reality. The Black civil rights activist Tarana Burke has been trying to widen the tent of the #MeToo movement for years.  In this book, I put her words center stage: “a shift can happen… but will only happen after we crack open the whole can of worms and get comfortable with the uncomfortable reality that there is no one way to be a perpetrator.”


How do you hope your book will most impact and benefit those in the workplace? Where can companies turn to for actionable steps?

My dream is that this book is read by a great many regular working people—people like me.  I know that this data and these stories took me unawares and hit me in the gut despite the fact that I’ve been writing about talent development for years!  As a result of what I’ve learned over the last two years, I have a much deeper awareness of hidden pockets of pain and shame in our midst, perhaps on my team. I feel that I’m now equipped with some road-tested tactics that allow me to be a much more empathetic and valuable colleague.

I also hope that this book is read by business leaders and organization heads. The action steps contained in the last three sections of this book are a distillation of best practice to date.  These new policies are still a work in progress—the #MeToo movement, after all, is less than three years old—but it’s great to have ten top picks in one place that enable employers to both mitigate risk and drive innovative inclusive cultures.


Thank you, Sylvia Ann, for taking the time to share your insights and a closer look into #MeToo in the Corporate World!  To order copies of this book for your organization, visit our website.


AuthorConnect Chat Series

This post was written by Karlyn Hixson, the Director of Strategic Partnerships & Editorial at BookPal. She is currently reading The Silent Patient by Alex Michaelides.

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