Call me naïve, but I thought issues of sexual harassment, and surely sexual assault, were long dead and gone in the business world. Yes, I knew powerful men and celebrities (e.g., Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton and Bill O’Reilly) got away with it. The recent Harvey Weinstein scandal spawned the #MeToo campaign. Google has over 20 pages of stories about women from all walks of life (including women around the globe and U.S. Senators) sharing their personal stories. And that’s just in response to this latest scandal!
I first got into the business of promoting gender diversity and gender-balanced leadership a decade ago. I had no interest in focusing on “low levels” of gender bias like harassment. I wanted to focus on the subtler expressions of bias, reflected in the declining percentage of women at each rung of the corporate ladder. I wanted to focus on the forms of unconscious gender bias that stand in the way of women being able to reach their potential in the workplace. I wanted to help create workplaces where men and women can succeed while working and leading with both masculine and feminine strengths.
I have acknowledged that this form of bias is not nearly as ugly as other versions. Just the month before the Weinstein story broke, I wrote, “If this issue were an iceberg, what I have been working on (getting more women CEO’s, senior executives, and successful entrepreneurs) is at the tippy top.” In order of ugliness, I described the uglier levels of the gender bias “iceberg”:
- Mid-level women in the workplace aspiring to leadership but confronting obstacles like the “double bind,” the “comfort principle,” and the absence of mentoring.
- Hourly and front-line women who have fewer choices and often face harassment as well as more subtle forms of bias.
- The gender pay gap.
- Overt stereotypes that limit women’s opportunities.
- The objectification of women that shows up as cat calls, sexist remarks, inappropriate touching and assault (the President bragged about it).
- The female face of poverty (more women than men are poor).
- Abuse in many forms, including sexual violence and emotional, psychological, and financial abuse.
- (Primarily in other cultures), the suppression of women, depriving them of education, the right to work, and other basic rights.
- Honor killings, forced marriage, genital mutilation – and human trafficking.
How ugly this iceberg is! The objectification of women in the form of sexual assault falls in the middle, below the “water line.” I feel sure that the men who read my book and blogs and participate in my workshops would never dream of harassing or assaulting a woman. But this is real and all too common.
We are a developed country. We have, at least in the past, enjoyed status on the global stage. How can we hold our heads up if half our population live in a world where they feel valued less than the other half or have reason to fear harm? How can our businesses ever enjoy the proven business value of gender diversity if women face unconscious gender bias? I am depressed by this. But I am pleased to see men standing up and saying, “No”!
Maybe this time, this much media, this many stories will lead to real change. Maybe making positive change at one level of this ugly iceberg will begin bringing down the whole thing. Are you hopeful this mess can bring about real change?