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The sexual harassment reckoning

Mar 18,2018 - Last updated at Mar 18,2018

LONDON — “Deeds, not words!” Britain’s suffragettes shouted, as they fought for, and won, the right to vote 100 years ago. Today, that call to arms seems more apt than ever. For all the advances that women have made in the last century, the tendency to pay lip service to women’s rights and dignity, without doing what is necessary truly to protect them, is more obvious than ever.

In recent months, high-profile movements like #MeToo have amplified women’s voices and catalysed others to come forward with harrowing stories of abuse, coercion and harassment. They have publicly exposed those — from former Hollywood titan Harvey Weinstein and casino mogul Steve Wynn to Oxfam employees who reportedly traded sex for aid, in positions of power who have abused, mistreated and otherwise victimised women and girls.

Some of these figures, such as former USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar, have been brought to justice. Even some who failed to protect young women, including the boards of directors of USA Gymnastics and Wynn Resorts, and the president of Michigan State University, where Nassar was on the faculty, are facing the music. All of this has put increasing pressure on men in power at least to acknowledge the added obstacles women face, from workplace harassment to a persistent pay gap.

But acknowledgement is not enough; nor is punishing one powerful abuser at a time. We must build a culture and a system in which women — not to mention other marginalised groups — do not face such barriers at all. And, despite all of the words of support, concrete action on this front has been severely lacking.

What would such action look like? For one thing, it would address the blurring of the distinction between private and public, a trend that some leaders have been slow to be recognise.

In some ways, this blurring benefits the marginalised. Behaving professionally at work but monstrously at home is no longer tolerated the way it once was. This was clear in the case of former White House staff secretary Rob Porter, who had been accused of domestic violence by two of his ex-wives; his second wife filed an emergency protective order against him in 2010.

The White House was well aware of the allegations, backed by photographic evidence, against Porter. His security clearance was delayed, owing to concerns that he was “violent”. Yet, he continued to rise in the ranks of the Trump administration, which has repeatedly attempted to obfuscate the issue. It was only when the information about Porter’s past was revealed publicly that he was forced to resign.

The White House’s handling of the Porter situation reflects the Trump administration’s willingness to side with anyone who serves its political agenda, such as Roy Moore, the failed Senate candidate from Alabama, even after credible allegations that Moore had made sexual advances against several women when they were minors. But the public’s tolerance for such behaviour is clearly running thin. Voters in overwhelmingly Republican Alabama elected Moore’s Democratic challenger.

But there is another side to blurring the line between public and private, owing to the interconnectedness of people’s work and social lives. Office holiday parties or off-site work, for example, can create confusion about behavioural protocols, not to mention opportunities for bad behavior.

In some cases, social events have been designed to enable such behaviour. An undercover investigation by the Financial Times recently revealed that the “Presidents Club” was hosting annual men-only charity fundraisers, secretive gatherings where British business, government, and entertainment figures would raise money for worthy causes. But these were also social events, where attendees drank, caroused, and sexually harassed skimpily-clad hostesses, who had been required to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Taking effective action to stop such activities is in everyone’s interest, not just that of potential victims. The organisations the harassers represent would also benefit from reducing the risk of serious reputational damage.

When it comes to business, CEOs and board members have an obligation of stewardship to safeguard their firm’s reputation. That means implementing credible measures to ensure that colleagues or employees are not abusing their power inside or outside the office, and holding accountable those who bring the company into disrepute.

Abuses of power and disregard for duty of care are becoming increasingly difficult to cover up, and thus increasingly likely to have negative consequences. Those powerful figures who hope that they can just offer words of support, buying time until things eventually return to business as usual, are in for a rude awakening. The dam has been broken, and the reckoning has begun. Like Britain’s suffragettes, those calling for action will be satisfied only when their reasonable demands are met with concrete action.


Lucy P. Marcus is CEO of Marcus Venture Consulting. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2018.

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