Mixed reactions to #MeToo in accounting

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Since its emergence in October 2017, the “#MeToo” social media campaign has had tremendous success in raising public awareness of sexual harassment, as well as leading to a tidal wave of high-profile firings and personnel changes in the media and entertainment industries. How much impact it will have on workplaces beyond those two, however, remains to be seen, and opinions in the accounting profession, for one, are divided as to its likely effect -- and whether it is needed at all.

According to a recent SourceMedia survey of sexual harassment across white-collar professions, just under a third of respondents (29%) believe that the #MeToo movement will have “some impact” on the profession, followed closely by 26% of respondents believing it would have “a little impact.” At the low and high ends, 13% said it will have “no impact,” and only 8% believing the movement would have a “high impact.” Additionally, 15% of all respondents said they “don’t know” what to expect from the movement, and another 9% weren’t familiar at all with #MeToo.

For those who expected the #MeToo to have an impact, the general consensus is that as widespread publicity continues to bring harassment issues to light, more and more victims will be encouraged to come forward. “I believe that as high-profile women are coming forward, that others will be more likely to report incidents of sexual harassment/workplace hostility,” responded one female Baby Boomer manager in public accounting (all responses were anonymous).

One example of that is a recent complaint filed by a female partner against Ernst & Young with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accusing the firm of ignoring her harassment at the hands of colleagues. (See "Ernst & Young accused of failing to act on groping complaint.")

On the other hand, those who said that #MeToo would have no substantial impact generally believed that the movement was overblown, not applicable to the accounting profession, or not valid in their small businesses and practices.

“I have been in this industry for nearly three decades and have not witnessed any problems with the issues that #MeToo [is] dealing with,” wrote a female Baby Boomer executive.

They said, they said

By and large, similar proportions of men and women expected #MeToo to have a little impact, some impact or a high impact. There were only two major differences between the sexes: First, more than twice as many male respondents (17%) believed that #MeToo would have no impact, compared to women (8%).

“The industry hasn't been impacted by sexual harassment like other industries have. Maybe I'm naïve, but I don't think so,” wrote a male Baby Boomer with over 25 years of experience in the tax and accounting field.

“Accountants are professional. All the firms I have worked for have always respected me as a person. Gender was not an issue,” wrote a female executive in her late 40s who didn’t think the movement would have an impact.

And second, women were surprisingly far more likely (15%) to report being unfamiliar with #MeToo than men (5%).

By age

Breaking the responses down by generations reveals the most variety in terms of how and why respondents believe in the eventual impact of #MeToo.

Given the movement’s beginning on social media, it is, perhaps, unsurprising that Generation Y had the biggest group that thought the social media movement would have some or a high impact (43% of all Gen Y respondents), and no Gen Y professional surveyed was unfamiliar with #MeToo.

“It's grown to a size that's hard to ignore and, as accountants, it's important to stay in tune with news and politics,” wrote a male Gen Y manager. “Also, I have some personal experience with people whose conceptions of sexual assault are changing because of the #MeToo movement.”

“I think just the fact that women are now starting to feel like sexual misconduct will be dealt with rather than swept under the rug in many industries means more women will be willing to come forward,” wrote a female Gen Y manager. “I think generally speaking, across all (at least all white collar) industries, men are becoming aware that it's becoming less acceptable to behave in certain ways, and whether they actually agree with it ideologically, they are learning that they won't get the responses they are looking for if they engage in sexual misconduct. Women are also generally growing more confident telling men to back off, at least in situations where power dynamics lead to authority figures behaving as rational actors.”

However, Gen Y also had the highest percentage of all age groups polled (18%) who felt the movement would have no impact. Many responses submitted for this view revolved around not believing harassment was a big enough issue in the accounting industry.

“I am more worried about career advancement than sexual harassment,” said a female Millennial marketing manager. “They will probably strengthen their language, but I have not seen it be an issue.”

“It's [a] fad, like all hashtag activism,” said a male Gen Y manager. “It's a good cause, but at least in my bubble, we're already acting appropriately.”

Generation X -- those professionals aged 35-50 -- was a little less optimistic about the #MeToo movement, with just under a third (29%) believing it would have some or high impact.

“Our industry is usually near the last to be affected by these types of issues,” a Gen X male executive remarked.

“The accounting industry's leaders are primarily males, and females might not feel comfortable speaking out because they are the minority and/or not represented in leadership roles,” observed a female Gen Xer in middle management.

Notably, a large percentage of Gen X women polled (21%) were not familiar with #MeToo, compared to only 8% of their male counterparts. Gen X also represented the largest percentage of age groups polled who were unfamiliar with the movement (15%), with women once again outpacing men, 21% to 8%.

“In general, I think victims are being empowered, and if there is misconduct it will more likely be reported under [the] current climate,” wrote a female Gen X manager.

The most common answer for Baby Boomers (ages 51-69) was actually that #MeToo would have some impact on the profession (31%), with a further 8% expecting it to have a high impact.

“[It] depends on credibility of accuser – every now and then a person is only seeking attention,” said a female Boomer executive. “But the majority of those reporting unwanted, unasked for attention are being listened to, finally.”

“I have not heard much about problems in the accounting industry yet, but I am sure this will be coming since no one seems to be excluded from the awful mess,” remarked a male Boomer in upper management.

“My industry attracts higher educated individuals who are always overly busy at all times of the year and well informed,” remarked a female Boomer in administration/management. “Chances are few that cheaters will stay around very long.”

Interestingly, the same wide margin was found between male and female Boomers who reported being unfamiliar with the movement – 16% of women to 6% of men.

Starting a discussion

Although the general opinion of the #MeToo movement in accounting is that it will have some impact on the industry, with a wide smattering of opinions as to why, it can be said with certainty that the social media campaign has at the very least initiated a conversation about harassment.

Whether professionals think that #MeToo and similar initiatives are overblown or essential, it has raised the chance of harassment issues being seriously discussed within businesses and management like never before.

For more, see "Sexual harassment is a bigger problem than accountants think."

(SourceMedia, which publishes Accounting Today, conducted its online survey of more than 3,000 professionals across multiple industries in the first quarter of 2018. The study, “Sexual Harassment in the Professional Workplace,” is a joint project of SourceMedia’s editorial and research departments.)

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