October 18, 2017 — I recently gave a speech where I called for organizations to adopt a “zero tolerance policy” for practices and behaviors that marginalize women—all the inertia that pushes men forward into leadership while pushing women out of the way—and challenged men to step up and be counted as champions of gender equality.
When I returned to my seat, I was approached by a man from the audience—let’s call him "Joe"—who wanted to share his story. Joe told me that early on in his career, one of his top performers—let’s call him "Ted"—was being accused of sexual harassment. As a new executive, Joe felt that the performance of his business unit was more important than holding his “star” Ted accountable for his actions. Joe protected Ted and in his words, literally “paid the woman to go away and stay quiet.” Years later, another man who had been Joe’s protégé faced similar allegations. This time when asked by his company’s chair of the board what they should do, Joe replied, “He had to go.”
I share this story because we should not fool ourselves into believing that sexual harassment is a phenomenon restricted to Hollywood or the entertainment industry. And we should not be naïve enough to accept that the biases women face in workplaces are all unconscious. Let’s call it what it really is—sexism. It is conscious, it is real, it is pervasive, and it affects women from all walks of life and in all industries. Just take look at the #MeToo stories about sexual harassment or sexual assault trending currently on social media.
The truth is that the leadership of organizations worldwide is predominantly male. And that means that men continue to hold power over women’s careers as well as their physical and psychological safety in the workplace. Research shows that sexual harassment remains a widespread problem, and at least one-quarter of women have reported some sort of harassment on the job.
From a business perspective alone—not putting aside the dangerous and long-lasting impact sexual harassment in the workplace may have on a woman—this inappropriate behavior costs employers in many ways: increased absenteeism, persistent job turnover, and low productivity and engagement. Individually, women may become depressed, experience anxiety, or quit all together in the hope of avoiding continued harassment.
Weinstein and his company’s all-male board of directors are reminders that legislation and company policies are necessary but not sufficient to ensure workplaces where women are free from bias, stereotypes, discrimination and yes, harassment. For some, highlighting women’s representation on corporate boards and in the C-suite is seen as a fight that is not relevant to the daily lives or careers of many working women.
But here’s the thing: we need women in leadership because power must be shared. We need to create workplace cultures where inclusion becomes the corporate equivalent of the “checks and balances” that are the core of democratic institutions. Because in a truly diverse and inclusive culture, it is harder to “circle the wagons” and protect and promote only those who look, sound, and think like you. And it’s easier to say “no” when you find yourself in an uncomfortable position, knowing that you will be believed, and that your career will not suffer the consequences we unfortunately associate with coming forward.
So, the fight for gender equality in leadership is a fight for all women, including the brave women who boldly came forward to share their truth about sexual harassment as well as the women who remain silent.
But we cannot do it alone. We need men to make the right decisions, not when caught in a torrential media downpour, or years later when the experiences of their daughters causes them to reconsider their ways. We need men to do their part, every day. Because gender equality is not only the smart thing to do for business, it’s the right thing to do for everyone.
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