More than a quarter of men around the world think it’s acceptable to tell sexual jokes or stories at work, according to a major new study [1] from the Global Institute for Women’s Leadership at King’s College London.

An Ipsos Mori survey of 20,000 people carried out on the think tank’s behalf revealed that 28% of men are comfortable with such banter, with only 16% of women agreeing with them. In the UK, almost one in 10 men (9%) think it’s okay to display material of a sexual nature at work. At a global level, that rises to more than one in eight men (13%) – almost double the proportion of women who think the same.

There were some encouraging signs: men (58%) are more likely than women (48%) to say they would be confident enough to rebuke a senior colleague for making a sexist remark. And 69% of both genders say they would be comfortable with telling off a junior colleague for such a comment.

However, looking at other types of behaviour and discourse, concerns remain. For example:

almost a third (32%) of those polled think that rejecting a colleague who wanted a date or romantic relationship is more likely to damage the career of a woman, compared to just 5% who say a man’s career is more likely to be damaged, and

close to one in five (17%) think that a woman who talks about her family life is more likely to damage her career – more than four times as many as those who think a man’s career is more likely to suffer from airing such subject matter (4%).

In a statement, [2] Global Institute for Women’s Leadership chair and former Prime Minister of Australia Julia Gillard said: “The workplace is one of the most important battlegrounds in the fight for equality between women and men, and these findings show we still have some way to go. While those who help fuel toxic work environments are in the minority, it’s nonetheless a significant one – and their views can make people’s working lives a misery. If employers want to pay more than just lip service to gender equality, they need to invest in creating cultures that value diversity and inspire respect for all.”

How can leaders set about creating the sorts of cultures that Gillard wants to see?

The Institute of Leadership & Management’s head of research, policy and standards Kate Cooper says: “This research highlights yet again that it’s not the prerogative of those who make inappropriate comments – whether said in jest or not – to decide who should or should not be offended. The offence is entirely within the jurisdiction of the individuals on the receiving end. Yes, there are legitimate challenges: it’s well known that some people hover on social media platforms deliberately watching and waiting for content or remarks to take offence at. But fundamentally, if people in their working environment are being made to feel uncomfortable by jokes or conversation, then it is for those who are creating that discomfort to change their behaviour.”

Cooper notes: “In our latest research, workers ranked respect as their top workplace value, with almost 47% saying it’s the cultural quality that most inspires them. In addition, almost half of companies state that respect is one of their core business values. Well, if you genuinely respect someone – which essentially means that you hold them and their feelings in high regard – then you wouldn’t be cracking jokes that make them uncomfortable.”

However, she points out: “The irony is that, all too often, when we challenge those types of comments, it’s the people who’ve made them that end up feeling some discomfort of their own. And as a natural by-product of cognitive dissonance, they will project that discomfort back on to the person who has raised the complaint, as though the complaint itself were the primary problem. Too many people are holding back from voicing their discomfort, because in an environment where those jokes are okay, that is very much the dominant discourse. The message that individuals pick up from the conversations around them is, ‘This is how we speak around here.’”

Cooper adds: “Another issue we must bear in mind is that if you are a lone representative of a minority group, it’s often difficult to speak up without your complaint becoming rapidly personalised. So that’s the challenge for organisations: don’t make it a personal issue – make it a company issue. A vision of what makes everyone feel respected has to be the bottom line, here. Are we saying anything that would make people feel disrespected?”

For further insights on the themes raised in this blog, check out the Institute’s resources on conversation

Source refs: [1] [2]