UB op-ed: Where #MeToo meets leadership education

By: | June 19, 2019
Susan West Engelkemeyer is president of Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts.

Over the past two years the #MeToo movement has drawn back the curtain on the longstanding and widespread mistreatment of many women in the workplace and stirred the conversation of the necessary changes going forward.

The going forward part won’t be so easy. Despite hefty expenditures by corporations and organizations on in-services and other programs to raise awareness of sexual harassment and alter workplace attitudes, the ingrained corporate and institutional cultures that fostered bad behavior remain real obstacles.

One common prediction is that this situation can improve when many more women are in charge and have the power to change the landscape—an evolution that will likely take decades.

Our own findings in Massachusetts indicate that businesses and organizations have a long way to go. The Nichols Institute for Women’s Leadership biennially grades Massachusetts companies, non-profits, and governmental entities on the number of women CEO’s, board members, and other high-ranking officers they include. So far, the grade has been an F.

We also can hope that the Gen Ys and Xrs swelling the workplace will  be better prepared to effectively work with a more diverse work force than their predecessors once they occupy even lower management positions.

Next generation

There is an additional pathway that could change workplace cultures more quickly and from the bottom up—by educating the young men and women who aren’t there yet.

In particular, teaching leadership skills to a new generation of male and female students may offer the best hope for a workplace makeover sooner than later. And we can better ensure that their definition of leadership comes with a greater understanding of women’s roles and rights in the workplace—and that any form of sexual harassment and insensitivity is an enemy of the corporate or organizational mission.

To this end, MBA programs around the country have begun requiring trainings, running workshops, and revising the curriculum to teach future executives how to recognize and eliminate sexual harassment.

But colleges also can play an important part in the process by treating leadership education as an essential part of the undergraduate curriculum. A number of studies have shown that college age students with leadership training are more likely to become managers and earn higher salaries, but they also become more concerned for and sensitive to the people with whom they work.

Leadership training

At Nichols where most of our students graduate with business degrees, they receive leadership training from the get-go. A required course for all first-year students—nicknamed Lead 101—presents them with weekly case studies which require executive decisions and problem solving, from promoting new products and executing layoffs to dealing with the anti-gay bias at retail businesses and inappropriate behavior in the workplace.

An elective Emerging Leaders program for the sophomore, junior, and senior years reinforces these skills and insights.

Our Institute for Women’s Leadership, meanwhile, has sought for the past five years to empower female undergraduates through mentoring by alumnae executives; field trips to New York companies where female role models occupy corner offices; and workshops in critical areas such as salary negotiation.

One underlying message of our leadership education is that students do not have to wait decades, or even years, to assert themselves. In Lead 101, their work in small groups reinforces the idea that it’s possible to lead “from the bottom”—to contribute key ideas or take on tasks—even if someone else is acting as the group leader during that class.

Our philosophy is that every student has leadership qualities and that all of them are in a position to stand up and speak to everything from innovative ideas to problems in workplace culture, including insensitivity to and harassment of female peers. Our students also learn different communication styles and the fact that different genders communicate differently.

Graduates enter the work world ready to deploy those skills and attitudes. Several recent alumni have reported that in just the first year at their jobs, they have taken on responsibilities such as leading sub-groups of the larger working groups to which they belong. They have said that the leadership work they did here has made for a seamless transition to their increasingly powerful roles in the workplace.

These young workers are not only building a track record but are bringing a mentality of taking responsibility, respecting co-workers, and doing what’s best for the overall enterprise. Along the way, they are helping knit the fabric of a newer culture—well before they could make a difference by virtue of holding senior positions.

Over time—possibly less than it will take a new generation of women and their male counterparts to reach the most influential levels—companies and organizations could witness a change in attitudes at the grass roots.

The idea of creating a new “fabric”, changing at the “grass roots”, and fomenting a “sea change” may sound like outcomes too soft for the harder-edged world of work. But leadership, along with corollaries such as teamwork and effective communication, is a skill widely considered essential to the 21st century workplace.

Practiced at all levels in an organization, it can help produce a sturdy and lasting result when it comes not just to coming up with better marketing strategies and program designs, but also to preventing more urgent problems such as sexual harassment.

Susan West Engelkemeyer is president of Nichols College in Dudley, Massachusetts.