A few years ago, in the PWE (pre-Weinstein era), I was invited to speak to a young women’s professional club the U.K. During this conversation, I asked the young women in the room a question that had been nagging me for some time.
When I was a young woman, fresh in the world of public relations, I had a number of #MeToo moments, though they certainly weren’t called that in the 1990s: the time I was on a phone call and a man casually walked up to me and stuck his hand in my pants; the time I was on a business trip with a client and he lunged at me with an open mouth; the multiple inappropriate comments about my body.
I wondered, had I simply aged out of this harassment? Did this still go on? I found out that day that indeed my wrinkles and title offered me protection that these young women simply didn’t have.
The #MeToo movement has done a lot to turn our attention to this sad fact and change is happening. As the mother of two teenage daughters, I am hoping that they will never have to deal with these kinds of issues in the workplace.
To ensure the change is widespread and permanent, companies must go beyond the mandatory sexual harassment training mandated by their attorneys. You know that training. Conan O’Brien tweeted, and I retweeted, this in 2011 -- again, might as well have been a century ago -- "Can’t wait to try out my new Saran Wrap Speedo at the TBS Sexual Harassment seminar."
No, to make a difference, this must be accompanied by a visible change in culture that signals to harassers and victims that the time is indeed up in corporate America. It must show a change from passive enforcement to a proactive healthy workplace. A few suggestions:
As anyone who visits a gynecologist knows, when the visit becomes necessarily invasive, the doctor is always accompanied by a (usually female) nurse. I’m not suggesting that every meeting have a third party, but imagine if every executive sat in an office with a glass window or conducted all meetings with the door open.
Outsource harassment complaints to an independent third party organization. We have now seen proof that HR departments are often unable to help victims because their jobs and salary are controlled by a company’s hierarchy, which is often male. Instead, employees should be encouraged to file complaints with an independent whistleblower organization that liaisons with the top female executive at your firm, ideally one who is bulletproof in the organization.
The holiday party. Spouses and partners are invited and encouraged to attend. Cancel the open bar and provide guests with tickets for two free glasses of wine or beer.
Set a very clear agenda with all staff as to the behavior that is acceptable as well as the behavior that will not be tolerated. Publish it and post it in public spaces. The reality is that many people do date co-workers and, in fact, many of them marry them. We shouldn’t mandate against that, however, we should set guidelines. It’s OK to respectfully ask out a coworker once, but if he or she declines, stop asking. It’s never OK to intimately touch a coworker without consent. It’s not OK to pursue a coworker who reports to you. And it’s never OK to suggest that a physical relationship will lead to a raise or promotion.
Make it your business to be aware of the "whisper network" within your corporation. If you have a serial harasser on staff, odds are that victims are quietly sharing this with other staffers. Create an environment where that information is encouraged to be shared with a "safe" senior official.
Stop rewarding the bad boys. We’ve all seen this happen. The wink-wink, nudge-nudge boys club mentality at the top where the "boys will be boys" behavior is not only tolerated but rewarded if the perpetrator is seen as a business builder. Here’s a clue. Everyone in the company knows who these guys are. And the minute you promote them -- nevermind decline to get rid of them -- you are basically saying you stand with the harassers.
To that end, make a public commitment to 50/50 in 2020. We need diversity among company leadership. We need to see women at the top, not as tokens, but in numbers that reflect if not our population, their presence in the field.
As with most intractable problems, there are common sense solutions that are staring us right in the face. We just need the courage to enact them.
Beth Balsam is the founder and CEO of X2PR and counsels companies on issues surrounding sexual harassment