Gender Inequality

How sexual harassment in Hollywood sparked a workplace revolution

A #MeToo protest march for survivors of sexual assault in Los Angeles, November 2017.

As the fallout from high-profile scandals has made clear, a new generation of workers demands equality, diversity and respect. Image: Reuters/Lucy Nicholson

Kathy Bloomgarden
Chief Executive Officer, Ruder Finn
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Gender Inequality

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting

We are in a workplace revolution. While it has been brewing for a while, building from accusations during the US elections towards more formalized scandals at Uber, the last few months have brought to light a dark secret: sexual harassment is a hidden hazard of the modern-day workplace – one with the capacity to seriously fracture workplace culture.

It’s been terrible to hear the countless #MeToo stories delivered in the wake of high-profile accusations involving Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey and Matt Lauer, to name only a few, but it’s also encouraging to see companies taking the issue seriously and attempting to create more of a "shared future". The episode could mark a turning point in the way employers around the world are thinking about not only sexual harassment, but other issues too.

What’s clear is that we need a new model for the management of workplace culture. In the past, companies have taken a box-ticking approach to harassment and other contentious issues, using written policies, training and manuals. But this traditional, top-down mode has now been proven ineffective.

I think it's worth asking: why did this movement and chorus of voices happen now? Why can we expect that there will be a shift in workplace culture at this point in time? The answer is reflective of the world we live in, and the changing patterns of influence.

Salma Hayek, who wrote about her experiences with Harvey Weinstein.
Salma Hayek, who wrote about her experiences with Harvey Weinstein. Image: Reuters/Patrick T Fallon

Three points are critical to effecting a change in attitude and behaviour:

1) Storytelling is required to inspire a movement. A community of voices that can align around a common purpose and a shared identify is a powerful force. Today, we see that the power of a community can break through many obstacles. The hashtag #MeToo was a rallying cry that brought people together and represented a wide variety of women who were demanding a new attitude towards workplace harassment.

2) Influencers are essential to lead the wave of people who speak out. The visibility and willingness of many celebrities, including Selma Hayek, Rose McGowan, Reese Witherspoon, to share their stories in great detail empowered women from many walks of life to speak up.

3) In order to break the mould, you need to capture real-life experience. This band of voices went viral because of the underlying truth of the stories that were told. Women (and men) who were affected came together in an authentic way – as genuine people telling of real events that had impacted their lives. The stories were both revealing and relatable, and because this is an issue that had involved so many, more and more people had a reason to join in as the stories and voices grew louder – eventually creating a support network that included millions.

As we look forward to what lies ahead for workplace culture in the aftermath of these cases, it's natural to wonder: where do we go from here? Below are a few changes that I believe we’re likely to see in the next year (and beyond), as workplace cultures begin to adapt to the new reality.

Leadership teams will become more balanced

It goes without saying that a diverse leadership leads to a more balanced workplace and healthier organisations. This is nothing new – a study by the Harvard Business Review has shown that companies with more high-level female executives bring in greater profits. Other studies have shown that women are better decision-makers under stress. But for the most part, women in senior leadership positions are still the exception rather than the rule. If we want to truly make changes in the way sexual harassment is addressed in the workforce, we need to ensure the voices of women are heard at the highest level. That means companies consciously ensuring that the views and experiences of women and minorities are represented on boards, panels and leadership teams – and that these views are represented by women themselves, not by men projecting what they think a woman might think about certain issues.

Reese Witherspoon alleges she was sexually assaulted by a director at 16.
Reese Witherspoon alleges she was sexually assaulted by a director at 16. Image: Reuters/Mario Anzuoni
Online workplace communities will influence culture in a new way

Companies must look beyond formal complaints in the workplace and pay more attention to online communities, chat rooms and forums to uncover rising issues and concerns in the workplace. The #MeToo movement spread virally and globally in just a day, and similar movements could happen at any time, to any organization. Companies will need to take online reviews, comments and chatter seriously, and work to address not only the issues that are bubbling over, but also underlying discontentment that could cause a problem in the future. Just as companies monitor social media for potential issues around products, customer feedback and brand reputation, they will need to establish similar holistic processes to monitor and address online workplace discussions around harassment and other concerns as quickly as possible.

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Millennials are becoming the new guard

With more millennials entering the workforce and demanding greater transparency, equality and purpose from companies, they will have a stronger voice, and I predict that many companies will start looking towards a younger age group when establishing teams to address internal issues. Millennials tend to be more accepting of diversity and change. They want to work for companies that have a higher purpose and clear values. Recent research shows that more than 50% of millennials say they would take a pay cut to find work that matches their values, while 90% want to use their skills for good. Further, a recent study from the Boston Consulting Group suggests that young male workers have views on a range of workplace issues – including family leave and training to reduce biases – that are more open-minded than those of previous generations, suggesting that future workforces may be able to dismantle the power disparities that have led to workplace harassment. Millennials are the leaders of the future (and the present), and as they start to replace the “old guard” way of thinking and acting in the workplace, there will less tolerance for non-inclusive behaviour.

A corporate culture shift is on the horizon, that is for sure – though it's still unclear what changes will result. I am inspired by the women (and men) who have spoken up about how future generations could work together. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the issues, but I truly believe that a focus on building community engagement, a purpose-driven environment and inclusive cultures can help move the needle. Just as together we started the movement, together we can work to shape a new cultural mindset in the workplace.

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Gender InequalityArts and CultureEducation
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