At the beginning of the #MeToo movement, women saw clearly that there is strength -- and power -- in numbers. Multiple women speaking out emboldened others to come forward until a trickle of accusations turned into a critical mass. Then and only then were high-profile predators like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, Bill O'Reilly and Steve Wynn taken down.
The #MeToo phenomenon went viral, impacting every industry at every level, from hotel workers in New York City to farm laborers in the fields of California, and from members of the European Parliament to media titans and Fortune 500 CEOs. Sexual harassment's ubiquity was exposed: in 2017 in an Ipsos/NPR poll, at least 59 percent of the women surveyed (and 27 percent of the men) reported experiencing some form of sexual harassment at work.
Yet even those eye-popping ratios may have been an understatement, because a significant number of sexual harassment victims remain silent out of fear of retaliation, worries that co-workers will shame them into silence or concern that they will be blamed (known colloquially as "slut shaming").
In short, our society has underestimated how deeply ingrained sexual harassment is in workplace culture. An article in the Harvard Business Review asked the pointed question: "If 98 percent of organizations in the United States have a sexual harassment policy, why does sexual harassment continue to be such a persistent and devastating problem in the American workplace?"
The article's findings were as dramatic as they were depressing. The researchers found that sexual harassment is deeply embedded within organizations -- even serving an important cultural function for some. Those organizational cultures are part of a larger national one that has typically elevated men over women. This, in turn, can lead women to accept male domination as the norm.
As HBR put it, "The male-centric nature of our national culture is so pervasive that even many women are male-centered, aligning themselves with men and masculinity to tap into male privilege while attempting (usually unsuccessfully) to avoid the disadvantaged space that women occupy in the workplace."
Can we continue to make #MeToo matter in our workplaces?
As an outgrowth of pervasive and deeply engrained gender stereotyping, sexual harassment is not going to be easily erased from the workplace. That said, #MeToo has made strides in weakening traditional workplace-power structures. In addition to the power of social media, a big reason for the movement's success has been that women have made enough inroads into positions of power in corporations, politics and the media that they no longer have to play along with the "boys' club."
As a result, traditional justifications that men who exploit women have used -- "she asked for it"; "she had it coming"; or "she's a slut" -- have lost their potency. That same poll by Ipsos/NPR found that despite divides along partisan, not gender, lines, 81 percent of people surveyed said they believed that a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment is essential to bring about change in our society.
Sexual harassment persists because of three factors: the sense of entitlement some men feel toward the women they work with; the presumption that women won't report it or fight back; and the presumed support even tacit support in the form of not calling out the bad behavior of other men. When men remain silent, they become complicit in a culture that enables harassment.
One important thing any man can do is be an ally to women. That means speaking up when he witnesses harassment, letting perpetrators know he is not OK with the harassment they are committing. This works best when there are other men on board. It can be frightening for men as well as for women, to speak out; and for men, speaking out comes with an additional fear of being kicked out of that boys' club.Yet being brave and calling out sexism opens up a space for more men to chime in. And that can mean an immediate stop to the behavior that's making women feel uncomfortable and alone.
After decades of accepting sexual harassment as the status quo, men have to take some of the weight off women's shoulders. It's not women's responsibility alone to effect workplace equality. Men need to call out the unacceptable behaviors of their colleagues because those behaviors are wrong and undermine women's workplace confidence and effectiveness. The whole company is impacted as a result.
#MeToo has changed the societal norms that have allowed employers to turn a blind eye to rampant sexual harassment. Companies now face the real prospect of a public relations disaster and reputational damage, plus a brain drain of key female employees and the potential inability to replace those women. It goes without saying that the likelihood of legal exposure will escalate. Here are five steps employees can take to prevent these types of outcomes:
1. Recognize that "it starts at the top"
If a company's male executive roster fosters a workplace where sexual harassment and retaliation are not only allowed to go unchecked but are accepted as the cultural norm, employees will follow. Chairman and CEO Roger Ailes built Fox News into a dominant cable news network while also building a culture of sexual harassment and retaliation.
Ailes was fired only after a sexual harassment lawsuit, but at least seven other women had already claimed sexual harassment by him spanning decades; $45 million was paid out in settlements. The next domino to fall under similar circumstances was Bill O'Reilly, Fox News's top on-air talent.
A leader not only has to talk the talk but walk the walk. Fox for example instigated mandatory sensitivity training and appointed women to its CEO and general counsel posts. Overall, leaders should establish clear policies and procedures and testing to make sure they work. Moreover, companies should conduct prompt investigations and take proportionate, corrective measures to address any misconduct.
2. Have short, clear policies
A Fortune 100 company I represented had a thick manual setting forth in legalese what constituted sexual harassment and what a victim's remedies were. Employees were left clueless. Instead, there should be transparent, understandable policies for employees to follow, and equally transparent ones for employees, to report, and for the company to investigate, any misconduct.
3. Conduct training sessions that are tailored to the company's workplace
I acted on behalf of a Fortune 100 company which required employees to watch a video showing sexual harassment scenarios unrelated to their work. This is called. "going through the motions," and it's not enough. Instead, trainings should include realistic examples of situations that could or actually do occur in the company's workplace. Real-time training is even better than a video. Train employees on which actions are acceptable and which are not.
4. Accountability is key
It was only after scores of legal suits, relentless publicity and tens of millions of dollars in settlements that Fox News was forced to oust its top executives and on-air talent. That is hardly "accountability." Employees have to see that bad behavior will not be tolerated and that anyone complicit in such behavior will be held responsible. Individuals who engage in harassment must be disciplined. So too should managers who do not firmly respond to misconduct.
Changing deeply imbedded societal norms is hard, and it takes time. But change is possible and necessary. #MeToo has shown us that real power comes only when a critical mass of women come forward. Now it's time that men and employers learn it, too. Changing workplace culture will happen only with strategic and persistent effort. But this takes the commitment of everyone involved -- the women, the men and their employers.
The writer is a CEO of The Meanest
Woman Alive LLC
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