In the past few months, headlines have been dominated by sexual harassment allegations in the workplace and thousands of women, across all industries, have started to speak up about their experiences as victims of sexual assault.
Since last October, when actress Ashley Judd spoke to the New York Times about her own experience as a victim of Harvey Weinstein’s harassment, thousands of women have come forward claiming to have had similar experiences. These individual cries for help have turned into a whole movement that uses the “Me Too” mantra, created by Tarana Burke decades ago.
The chief editor for Time Magazine has defined this movement as the “fastest-moving social change we’ve seen in decades”, so much that the magazine has named the “Silence Breakers” as Person of the Year for 2017. Actresses, pop stars, but also journalists, entrepreneurs and housekeepers have come forward to tell their own stories, hoping that it would give women (and men) all over the world, the strength to come forward and share their own experiences. However, what is truly revolutionary about “Me Too” is that, maybe for the first time ever, people are ready to hold perpetrators accountable for their actions.
Now that this issue has gotten this much attention from the media, the real question is: how will this movement foster change for women in the workplace?
Although coming forward is a first fundamental step, it is not enough. A real systematic change is needed to protect individuals across the whole spectrum, from those who have little power, to those who are trying to climb to corporate ladder. In a recent post, Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, suggested that every workplace should “start with clear principles, then institute policies to support them.” She proposed a workplace training for standard behaviour as well as the necessity to “treat all claims with seriousness, urgency and respect.” All complaints need to be handled so that the person being harassed is not the one getting punished. She further emphasised how every employee has a key role in keeping the working environment a safe place, so that one day, no one will be fearful of reporting harassment or dread it might impact negatively their own career.
Moreover, this driver is a huge opportunity to raise gender equity in the workplace, granting women more opportunities as well as more respect.
Studies have shown that harassment takes place in environments where men dominate management and women have little to no power. This is exemplified by the recent harassment and abuse cases in the entertainment and media industries, but it is also happening in others, so much that, as the Harvard Business Review has recently reported, “male-dominated management teams expect harassment, creating a culture of complicity.”
In fact, Brande Stellings, advisor for Catalyst, recently told the Washington Post that “part of why women don’t get the top job is that they’re seen as a risky bet because of the stereotypes people have.” But now, “maybe men are a risky bet, and people are asking about the risk of not having women in power”. The evident solution is that we need more women in power. In a world run by men, there are currently only 15 female leaders, most of which are the country’s first woman in power. Furthermore, one third of global businesses have no women in senior management roles and what is even more staggering is that this data has not changed since 2011. This implies that at this rate of change, women will not reach parity until 2060.
The strong cultural prejudice we have built through the centuries – women “take care”, men “take charge” – has unmistakably rooted itself into our corporate culture as well. Although the solution to this problem appears to be simple, it has been consistently difficult to implement, even by the most forward thinking industries such as tech. It should be pointed out that reducing power differential would help not only because women are less likely to harass men, but also because their presence can be fundamental in changing the workplace culture as their perspective tends to be unique and could complement that of the opposite sex, promoting innovation on top of safety.
Hopefully, the fire that has been ignited by the brave silence breakers in 2017 will continue to be fuelled in 2018 and for many more years to come, until an improved focus on sexual harassment will not only ensure safety for women (and everyone else) in the workplace, but also allow them to rise to their extraordinary potential with equal opportunity.
Enrica De Colle
Women in Business_Bocconi Female Students Association