The annual gathering of the Advertising Federation of Minnesota is typically a cocktail-infused celebration for creative types. But this year, an elephant was in the room.

A huge, white, 3-D elephant made of cardboard. It was intended to call attention to sexual harassment and women’s inequality in marketing and advertising.

“It was the first thing you saw when you entered the room,” said Kristine Baumgardner, creative director at Wunderman-Minneapolis, the ad agency behind the stunt. “You couldn’t get around it or ignore it.”

The metaphorical elephant exists throughout corporate America, where almost half of working women say they have received an unwelcome sexual advance or some other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature on the job.

The cascading allegations of sexual misconduct — from Hollywood and media companies to the White House, Congress and the Minnesota State Capitol — have laid bare how difficult it is for workplaces of all types not only to talk about sexual harassment but to change the culture in which it continues to fester.

“Companies can talk a big talk,” said Cam Hoang, a corporate consultant and partner at the Minneapolis law firm Dorsey and Whitney. “But you look at who continues to hold the power and look at the percentage of women at the top who are CEOs, senior managers, on boards. The trends are promising, but they’re still a minority.”

As women tell their #MeToo stories and a growing tally of high-ranking men get fired or lose the support of their backers over boorish behavior, human resources professionals are doing some soul searching.

Nearly all companies have policies that prohibit sexual harassment and spell out grievance procedures. Yet only about 30 percent of women who experience harassment ever complain to their bosses, according to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Does training work?

Many workplace experts fear there has been too much emphasis on the existence of training and prevention measures and not enough focus on how effective they are.

“It’s not going to cut it anymore for companies to just deliver the old-style training when people come in the door and are given an employee handbook that says what you should and shouldn’t do,” said Kelly Marinelli, a human resources consultant who works with Fortune 500s, small businesses and startups.

Surprisingly little research has been done on what works, and the handful of studies on prevention training offer a mixed bag. One showed a high level of cynicism in organizations where workers feel that harassment and bullying are tolerated. Another found that men who’d had the training were more likely to blame women who had been victimized. Training is most effective when employees believe the work is ethical and leaders take complaints seriously.

Failure to implement a solid policy can hurt the bottom line. Sexual harassment costs a company $22,500 in lost productivity for each person affected, one study estimated.

In addition to lawsuits and reputation damage, a workplace culture that allows open secrets about known bullies and offenders can make it difficult to attract and retain talent. An estimated 80 percent of women who experience harassment end up quitting.

“If you don’t address behavior, in an environment like today, where men and women are feeling empowered to go public, your brand is at stake. Your business is at stake,” Marinelli said.

Increasingly, boards of directors are getting involved.

“They’re paying attention in large part because investors are paying attention,” said Dorsey and Whitney’s Hoang.

Where boards might once have left issues about corporate culture to day-to-day managers, they now see lack of diversity, pay inequities, discrimination and sexual harassment as legal and regulatory risks.

It’s difficult to measure the number of sexual harassment complaints because many companies force parties to sign confidentiality agreements and few cases end up in court. Much of the Minnesota data is tucked into a broader category of gender discrimination.

The federal EEOC logged 6,758 claims of sexual harassment last year, but that number has been flat for the past three years. Claims have declined 15 percent since 2010.

Employment attorneys expect numbers to spike. Not only are women more emboldened to speak out, but companies see the momentum ignited by allegations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein as a wake-up call.

“Employers are doing a better job of patrolling the workplace,” said Marshall Tanick, a Twin Cities employment attorney who has represented victims as well as those accused of sexual harassment.

A sense of entitlement about sticking to the old ways remains. Despite decades of training, the line between harmless conversation and inappropriate joking, touching or abuse of power remains fuzzy to some.

“Men are confused,” Tanick said. “ ‘I can’t mention I thought she had a nice hairdo? Or comment on a woman’s apparel or appearance?’ In the old days, they could say, ‘Well, I was just joking.’ It’s easier today to draw the line on these so-called jokes.”

Even workplace activists like Alex West Steinman can second-guess themselves. She recalls her own #MeToo moment of doubt on Facebook.

“I hesitated before I posted,” said Steinman, who co-founded a group called MPLS MadWomen to bring together women in advertising to discuss workplace challenges.

“I’ve been catcalled. There’ve been men who touched me inappropriately, slapped my butt. Is that sexual harassment? Is my story horrendous enough? Well that just proves what culture has told us: that this is OK. In reflecting, none of this is OK.”

Segregating workers

Sometimes, Steinman believes, women just need to work without men around. A woman-only community and workspace she co-founded, known as The Coven, is expected to open next year in downtown Minneapolis.

“Corporations were built by men and for men,” she said. “The Coven is a space where women can feel comfortable to be any version of themselves: to be in boss mode and not feel judged or have any anxiety around potential harassment from co-workers.”

In the “elephant in the room” project, Wunderman’s Baumgardner included quotes from women and survey data to underscore the problem: One in three women in creative roles feels she can’t report harassment or discrimination; two times as many women say pay and promotions are affected by gender.

As one of the industry’s few female creative directors, she hopes her project and society’s renewed attention to women’s workplace battles will embolden the up-and-coming generation. “I don’t think this is going to go away,” she said. “I hope it’s given women a lot more confidence to stand up.”