The other day I watched Confirmation, a 2016 TV movie based on the confirmation of Clarence Thomas as a US supreme court judge and the allegations of sexual harassment levied against him by a former employee, Anita Hill, in the early 1990s.
More than anything else, it confirmed my view that sexual harassment is about power. I was watching it just a few weeks after the Harvey Weinstein scandal and as stories broke about young women being sexually harassed and assaulted in parliament. #MeToo is everywhere, even in our industry.
Ours is an industry in which men hold disproportionate power. While at junior levels women outnumber men, as we make our way up the seniority scale women start disappearing, and by the time we get to the board room, our numbers have dwindled dramatically. Where power inequality exists, the risk of sexual harassment is high. Where junior women are dependent on senior men for their career opportunities, they can be vulnerable.
There are few women I know, if any, who haven’t at one time or another experienced unwanted sexual attention in the workplace. While some of it could be dismissed as “a bit of banter”, in other cases it was physical and there was nothing funny about it.
This is a problem for all of us. So whether you are a woman or a man, if you see or hear about something that is wrong, call it out.
Whatever the level of seriousness, the sheer daily grind of having to deal with unwanted, unsolicited sexual attention can be overwhelming; it certainly weighs you down.
We have had lots of people (mainly men) complain that it is impossible to know how to behave because the rules have changed – “it used to be OK”. To be clear, it has never been OK, it was always unacceptable. What has changed is that women are finally saying enough is enough.
I have no desire to end workplace banter and even gentle flirting (I love a gentle flirt) but none of it should make people feel uncomfortable, threatened, or fearful. It isn’t difficult. And while it is somewhat depressing that we have to provide formal guidance about what is and isn’t acceptable, standards of behaviour should be detailed in staff handbooks alongside clear means of raising concerns.
It is also really important that this is not seen as a women’s problem. This is a problem for all of us. So whether you are a woman or a man, if you see or hear about something that is wrong, call it out. I know that is easier said than done but the more of us who make a stand, the harder is it for this kind of behaviour to continue.
Time and commitment is needed
Tackling the fundamental gender inequality in the workplace does not need to be that difficult either. It does, however, take real commitment from the top. I would start with making commitments to achieving gender equality in levels of seniority and pay within a specified timeframe.
This of course takes us to the vexed question of quotas. I admit my views have changed as I have got older. As a bright, young thing I was defiantly opposed; women don’t need quotas to get on, sure we need to work harder but we want to get there on our own merit.
But over the years, I have come to appreciate this is utter nonsense. Our own merit hasn’t got us very far. The position of women in our industry hasn’t changed that much since I started my career. The top jobs are still occupied largely by men. It cannot be the case that they are all much better than the women who were once their peers. In fact it actually makes me wonder if quotas are in place which limit female ambition rather than support us.
Of course, as long as the debate is framed as recruiting or promoting a woman to fill a quota there will always be a stigma attached to such appointments. But what if we talk about appointing the best people? Talk about recruiting by throwing the net as wide as possible, beyond the usual networks? We frequently talk about looking for someone with specific skills or experience, what about adding perspective to the list?
I am pretty sure that we would then find as many roles going to women as men. We have an opportunity to change things for the better. Not just because it is the right thing to do but because equality and diversity are good for business.