Does "bro" culture spark sexual harassment?

When Susan Fowler began working at Uber, she alleges she was soon propositioned for sex by her new manager. 

“It was so clearly out of line that I immediately took screenshots of these chat messages and reported him to HR,” she wrote in a February blog post. “Upper management told me that he “was a high performer” .... and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part.”

Fowler’s charges sparked soul-searching at Uber and come at a time when Americans are more aware of sexual harassment, thanks to a confluence of political and business events. President Donald Trump’s taped conversation in which he boasted about grabbing and kissing women raised questions about his character and offended some voters. More recently, allegations of sexual harassment have followed Fox News host Bill O’Reilly and Signet Jewelers (SIG). 

While sexual harassment can occur in any industry or company, some traits tend to be associated with higher rates of abuse. Industries that are male-dominated -- such as technology -- and companies where both upper- and middle-management ranks are filled by men are more likely to be places where sexual harassment occurs, said Joni Hersch, a professor of law and economics at Vanderbilt University. 

“What they have in common is a hierarchical, male-dominated organizational structure,” she said. Male-dominated leadership “covers almost all organizations, so that won’t help identify it, but if there are fewer women in the intermediary levels, that becomes more of a red flag.” 

Like many tech companies, Uber is predominately male. In its first diversity report, ride-hailing company said 64 percent of its employees are men, which isn’t far off from other big tech companies. The “bro” culture of Silicon Valley has been tied to a higher level of sexism and sexual harassment, with 60 percent of women in tech saying they had experienced unwanted sexual advances, according to a survey of 210 women.

That’s higher than the overall rate of sexual harassment the U.S., which stands at about 40 percent to 50 percent, Hersch said. Most cases are unreported or handled internally by human resources departments. 

Aside from the “bro” culture, “star” culture is another type of organization that can allow abuses to flourish. Fox’s O’Reilly may be considered essential to Fox News executives because he hosts the cable-news industry’s top-rated program, which draws billions of dollars in advertising money. 

Even though The New York Times found five women who received payouts of about $13 million, O’Reilly remains ensconced in his role. On the other hand, Fox News CEO Roger Ailes resigned from the media company last year after he was sued for sexual harassment by former Fox anchor Gretchen Carlson. It was a stunning end to the career of one of the most powerful executives in media. 

“If there’s a strong HR department, a single bad actor won’t be protected,” Hersch said. “The process will work. But if things come out like O’Reilly or Roger Ailes, and there is a track record, this isn’t the first person complaining, and yet the harasser stays in a position of power. The years pass, and they remain in power as long as they are protected.”

Men also are victims of sexual harassment, although at about half the rate of women. Some 19 percent reported unwanted sexual behaviors compared with 44 percent for women. 

Sexual harassment affects corporations far beyond the pain and turmoil it inflicts on the person suffering the abuse. Organizations suffer higher turnover and absenteeism, as well as lower productivity, Hersch said. 

“From the time economists started studying discrimination, the understanding was that this was costly to firms and would be rooted out in competition,” she said. “I don’t think it’s diminished at all, in contrast to the pay gap. So how can it be sustained? There are several things that conspired against market pressures, such as a massive rate of underreporting.”

When reports of allegations of sexual harassment at Signet were reported in February, the stock plunged. Signet disputed the account and said “the distorted and inaccurate picture of our company presented in these allegations does not represent who we are.” 

People who report sexual harassment fear retribution and may worry they won’t be taken seriously. Only about 5 percent to 15 percent of people who have suffered from sexual harassment make a formal complaint, Stanford University law professor Deborah L. Rhode wrote in the Harvard Business Review

While Uber and Fox News “are under the microscope, the allegations are certainly nothing new and probably happening in many other workplaces big and small, but we’re just not hearing about it,” said Glassdoor director of communications Scott Dobroski. 

So how can job candidates sense whether a company has a healthy culture? For one, look for an executive leadership that discusses what it won’t tolerate because that “sends a strong signal about what’s allowed and what is not allowed,” Dobroski said.

Studying a company’s reviews on a site such as Glassdoor, where current and former workers leave candid assessment of corporate culture, can help identify red flags. Lastly, check the Twitter feeds, social media presence and news coverage of top executives at the company. If their public statements indicate a lack of respect for their employees or women, that could spell trouble.

Take Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick. In a 2014 interview with GQ, he made a crass joke about his corporate role and his growing popularity with women: He referred to the company as “boob-er.”