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Is Sexual Harassment Coming to an End? Good News and Bad News

First, the good news: dozens of women have been speaking out about sexual harassment in the workplace in recent months, bringing their upsetting experiences into the light and out of the shadows after a long period of silence about this issue in organizations. Understandably, women have been coming forward slowly either because of pressure to stay silent or justifiable fear of negative consequences to their careers. Gretchen Carlson spoke out at Fox News and brought about the firing of Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly, and other women gained courage from her example to tell their stories of sexual harassment at Fox.

Mike Isaac of the New York Times reports that “in February, the former Uber engineer Susan Fowler wrote a public blog post detailing what she said was a history of sexual harassment at Uber. That plunged Uber into crisis” and emboldened dozens of other women to come forward about the pervasive “bro culture” at technology firms.

Shirley Leung of the Boston Globe  notes that while most women have not spoken out publicly because of fear of losing opportunities for jobs or startup funding, those who have are making an impact. Katie Benner of the New York Times  describes some of the results:

  • Dave McClure, founder of the startup incubator 500 StartUps, resigned after admitting to an accusation of sexual harassment. The company also had covered up an earlier sexual harassment charge against him when “the investigation was kept confidential.”
  • Binary Capital imploded due to sexual harassment charges lodged against Justin Caldbeck by several women.
  • Uber CEO Travis Kalanick resigned.
  • The New England Venture Capital Association invited members to sign a pledge of good behavior.

Now for the bad news: the voluntary signing of a good-behavior pledge is not likely to change much. While I agree with Katie Benner that “often change happens only when there is public revelation,” I don’t think that public revelation is enough to stop sexual harassment. I agree with Farhad Manjoo that sexual harassment is systemic, pervasive, and ingrained in many organizational cultures. Sexual harassment is systemic because

  • Organizational leaders ignore complaints or sweep them under the rug
  • Lack of transparency is built into employment contracts with arbitration clauses that rarely favor complainants
  • Lack of transparency is built into nondisclosure agreements required for settlements when sexual harassment claims are found to have merit
  • Abusive organizational cultures are enabled by a failure of oversight by boards and investors

The fact that a few dozen women have spoken out and a handful of high profile CEOs and investors have been dismissed does not mean that anything has changed. Katie Benner notes that “some venture capital firms [the sites of a lot of sexual harassment] are privately grumbling about having to deal with the issue.” She quotes Aileen Lee, a founder of Cowboy Ventures, as saying, “They’re asking when people will stop being outed.”

As I have written in previous articles, steps can be taken to really change organizational cultures to be more hospitable to women:

In the meantime, thank you to the women who have come forward publicly to put this important issue back into the spotlight. And thank you to the trustees of Uber who forced the founder to step down for a wide range of bad behavior, including sexual harassment at his company.

 

Image courtesy of US Embassy, Jakarta. CC by-nd 2.0

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