There is no denying our country is in a pivotal moment when it comes to sexual harassment. While details vary from one scandal to another, an overwhelming majority of them are occurring in workplace and professional settings. That means the problem is not just about aggressors keeping their hands to themselves: what we’re really talking about is gender-based exclusion.
So, even as it feels like the turbulence is everywhere, these scandals shaking things up and allowing for real shifts in thinking. They’re also offering some lessons we can learn – and act upon – right now.
1. Good men (and women) can speak up.
Most men are not harassers. So, there are countless men who can help solve the problem. They need to consider how to actively foster change when sexual harassment happens in their midst, and take large and small actions to make a positive impact.
One difficult but effective response is to speak up. Responses like, “You are not funny,” or, “it is not a joke,” can quickly halt inappropriate behavior. More directly, one man can tell another to just “stop it.” When done publicly, these responses also send a message to women that their workplace is not as exclusionary and hostile to them.
What might feel even more intimidating calling out female aggressors. Yes, women, like this congressional candidate who just stepped down, have been accused of sexual harassment. In these cases, as well, both men and women have a responsibility to speak up.
2. Don’t make it worse for women.
Knowing that harassment happens within and across gender lines, let’s make sure women aren’t further disadvantaged by proposed solutions. I disagree with those who say men and women should never be together behind closed doors. Those kinds of measures would only serve to keep women at a disadvantage, making them less ideal for certain roles because communication would be more difficult. We must keep in mind that the point is to achieve equity – giving everyone what they need to be successful.
3. Everyone needs to reflect.
People “outside” of harassment situations aren’t necessarily off the hook. In fact, many of us need to start by taking a look at how our own privilege and power can factor into other people’s experiences.
The public radio show The Takeaway recently aired a fascinating 20-minute segment that tackled head-on the firing of the show’s own host due to allegations of sexual harassment, racial harassment and bullying. At one point, the replacement host – a man – reveals that when he saw others being treated badly, he only felt grateful to have been spared. When the guest presses him on why didn’t question his own preferential treatment, he answers simply and honestly, “I never thought to ask.”
The truth is, many people never do. It takes a certain level of awareness, beginning with mindfulness, to recognize the subtle ways our own responses can impact situations of inequity. (Check out my new white paper on mindfulness here.)
4. “Open secret” means toxic culture.
As Nolifer Merchant recently put it in a great article for Harvard Business Review, “Instead of thinking of sexually predatory behavior as a few (or many) bad seeds, we ask, instead… how do we change our organizations to rebalance power?”
The most appalling aspect of the recent wave of sexual harassment allegations is that many were considered an “open secret.” Lots of people knew about the behavior for a long time. But an open secret is really just a group decision to ignore a problem, and even exacerbate it by allowing the space for problems to fester and people to get hurt. That points to a cultural problem. In some cases, victims and onlookers did not feel that they could complain without jeopardizing their careers. At other times, complaints were ignored by the very people tasked with holding employees accountable.
Organizations need to demand zero-tolerance when it comes to harassment. However, that should come from a culture and inclusion perspective, not legal compliance perspective.
In many of the cases we are finding that there is reportedly a known culture in the organization. The phrase “open secret” keeps coming up. Organizations need to be asking, “what is our role as an organization?” Cultural change can seem incredibly difficult, but it’s key to solving the problem of sexual harassment. When harassment happens in workplace and professional settings, leadership has a responsibility to act.
While the current climate has some people nervous, it’s actually a great opportunity to assess our organizations and ourselves, and implement the lessons this moment is teaching us.