Sexual Harassment – Doing Nothing is Not an Option

Over the past several months we have witnessed an explosion of allegations of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace, resulting in immediate terminations of high profile men across the media, government, and entertainment industries.

Because of the celebrity status of the accused, each story dominates the news waves for several days.

The range of responses to these stories varies: for many women, a validation of a personal experience buried for decades. Buried, because even in those companies with workplace policies forbidding sexual harassment, the evidence suggests these claims weren’t always taken seriously, and if addressed, the consequences often weren’t favorable for the victim.  For some men, a new insight or a confirmation of the suspected pervasiveness of the issue. Perhaps coupled with some regret, for their inability or unwillingness to take affirmative steps to stop this behavior.  And for others, a fair dose of skepticism. These accusations span over 30 years. If this behavior characterized the experience of women in the workplace for decades, what has prompted women to come forward now?

In large part, the catalyst was the election of President Trump. In response, on January 21, 2017, people of all backgrounds came together, 5 million strong, on all seven continents to add their voice to push back. They answered the call to show up and be counted: to  advocate legislation and policies regarding human rights and other issues, including women’s rights.   Most of the rallies were aimed at Donald Trump, immediately following his inauguration, largely due to statements he made and positions he had taken which were regarded as anti-women and other wise offensive.

The sheer volume of allegations has built momentum, creating an awareness of the pervasiveness of this issue and a seeming energy to develop and implement solutions to systemically change the dynamics in workplaces across all industries.

However, we are running the risk of becoming numb. The media carries each new salacious story for a few days, until the next big story hits (the budget proposal, N. Korea, the Flynn investigation, the never-ending tweets etc. etc.). We also know there will be at least one false allegation which has the potential to discredit the veracity of the many. And already we are hearing rumblings of a backlash, and returning to an earlier, safer time, with fewer women in the workforce.

We need to resist going numb. Sexual harassment is an issue which affects half the population, and crosses ethnic lines. It is an issue we have the power to do something about. It is one where the affected population (mostly women) has had the courage to say enough is enough – we will no longer be silent or silenced.

To not respond to their courageous action, to do nothing – is not an option.

We are at an inflection point in our history. Gender bias is an underpinning of our society. This bias has been both institutionalized and normalized.   It is not that long ago that women were unable to secure a loan without the co-signature of a man.

We cannot squander this opportunity to finally create an environment of equality and inclusiveness for all.

Over the past several decades, much has been attempted to level the playing field and assure equality for women in the workplace.  Policies have been implemented to address the wage gap, the diversity challenge, work and family issues, etc. While strides have been made, the reality of their experience and the status of women is far from equal. In the U.S., women hold 51.5% of management, professional and related positions, but only 5.2% of CEO positions. Women hold 20.2% of the Board seats in the U.S., but only 12% worldwide. (1)

Most companies have not been silent on sexual harassment. Sexual harassment policies have been developed with federal and state laws governing their implementation.  Sexual harassment training is a standard offering to supervisors and all employees. The training describes the conduct that constitutes sexual harassment, how to avoid, and the consequences of non-compliance. The training is typically offered via an online tool that spans 45 minutes to a couple of hours. The supervisors sign that they have completed the training, and the company has an adequate defense against potential liability.

This training is important, as it creates awareness and describes “what” it is. But it does not go far enough.

There is a critical call to action, for both women and men.

Women need to continue to courageously tell their stories, to provide guidance in helping women navigate the workplace, and to mentor each other. Women remaining silent is no longer an option. Several years ago I was the keynote speaker at a Women’s Luncheon where I was invited to describe my leadership journey, including the obstacles encountered along the way.   In crafting my story, I considered telling my tale of sexual harassment in the workplace which had the affect of potentially precluding my candidacy for a promotion. I didn’t tell that part of my story. My soul searching as to why I didn’t leads me to the conclusion that it was timing, as this issue was not a part of the national discourse at that time. Like the many women we have heard from, I dealt with it in my own way, and then, I buried it.   In hindsight, I know that describing the situation and the actions I took would have been instructive and beneficial to the many young women and professionals in the audience.  In today’s climate, I would tell that story with the hope that it would encourage others to speak up, recognize the importance of a support system, and the key role that women play in mentoring each other.

Men hold 95% of CEO positions at S&P 500 companies and 80% of Board seats of the Fortune 500. (1)  Sexual harassment is at its core about power. Boards, CEO’s and C-suite executives have been afforded the unique opportunity to fundamentally change workplace dynamics to create an environment where gender bias ceases to exist.   Seize this moment to start the conversation in your Board rooms and executive offices. Women have demonstrated tremendous courage in speaking up. It is incumbent upon the men to listen – truly listen and without judgment – to their experiences and the psychological, emotional and physical impact of harassing and assaulting behavior. Engage in productive and constructive dialogue which will form the basis for true partnership. As it is about power, women can’t solve this alone. It is a men’s issue.

If not compelled by the simple humanity and respect and safety each and every employee should enjoy in their workplace, the bottom line is diversity is good for business. “Research shows that companies with more diversity, and particularly more women in leadership, offer higher returns on capital, lower risk and greater innovation than firms without such leadership”. (2)

Change will not come from a law, or a training session or women defending themselves one-by-one. Change will come from men and women working together to unequivocally define “acceptable behaviors” in the workplace. Men need to engage and speak up for their wife, their sister, their daughter, their friends and their colleagues. Together, on a very human level, we can ALL make a difference.

“Cathy Unruh, Partner, Jackson Hole Group, San Francisco, CA”

1) Catalyst, Women in the Workforce, 2016
2) NYT, Opinion, Sallie Krawcheck, The Cost of Devaluing Women