From the recent revelations about Matt Lauer and Harvey Weinstein to an increasing number of political figures, cultures that have enabled sexual harassment are at the forefront of the national conversation. What can be done about this epidemic and why has it been allowed to exist for so long? Although the term first began to be used in the mid-1970s, it wasn’t until Anita Hill testified before the Senate confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas’ appointment to the Supreme Court in 1991 that it became part of the consciousness of the U.S. workforce in a meaningful way.
Unintended Consequence of Good Intentions
In the years that followed, there was a great deal of sexual harassment training that occurred in many organizations. Women learned from this training that some of the behavior they’d been putting up with for years was, in fact, illegal. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of this sexual harassment training was men’s reaction to the words, “‘unwanted, unwelcome, and in the eye of the beholder.” Then the 1994 film, Disclosure with Demi Moore and Michael Douglas, vividly portrayed how a man’s entire career could be destroyed by one woman’s false accusation of sexual harassment.
As well-intentioned and necessary as this training was, many men concluded that they were in danger of being falsely accused of sexual harassment – and the safest way to stay out of trouble was to limit or avoid interacting with women at work. As a result, women’s informal development declined or disappeared altogether. Many organizations began offering training programs specifically for women to address their development needs – which were often viewed as ‘special treatment’ by their male peers. Few organizations understood this unintended impact of widespread sexual harassment training.
Meanwhile, the real perpetrators, especially those in powerful positions continued harassing women – and some men as well. It’s highly doubtful that Harvey Weinstein ever took a sexual harassment course, but even if he had, it’s unlikely that it would have changed his behavior.
Power + Privilege + Absence of Consequences is the perfect formula for maintaining the status quo.
A Shift in Awareness
Due to social media, amazing displays of courage, and willingness to hold perpetrators accountable in a very public way, more victims are coming forward every day to share their stories and identify their perpetrators. This is likely just the tip of the iceberg. Many still remain silent, afraid to come forward out of fear of how they will be labeled or retaliated against. That has to change.
But how is that change created? The beginning of an answer can be in learning more about each other and ourselves by starting a dialogue. We must understand how our socialization about men and women, power and privilege have enabled sexual harassment to exist for so many decades in virtually every type of work environment. Men need to understand that the ‘locker room talk’ that objectifies women that they’ve perceived as innocent since no women were present to hear it — may, in fact, be the fuel that causes one of their peers to cross the line.
Sexual harassment is an emotional topic because it involves fear, shame, anger and embarrassment. The approach to addressing it can’t treat it as though it’s a class on time management. As we prepare for what will certainly be the next big wave of sexual harassment prevention training, let’s learn from the past so we don’t repeat the same mistakes:
- Think through what the potential unintended consequences could be for whatever you do in this area.
- Don’t give those with the most power a ‘pass’ when it comes to preventive measures.
- Be willing to invest the time it takes to create real understanding — a 45 minute ‘powerpoint on steroids’ program is not likely to change behavior.
- Go beyond training to create a culture of accountability.
Sexual harassment has no place in the workplace. Creating and sustaining real change is no small task. It takes experience and skill to shift a large culture. If you would like to learn more about building a truly inclusive culture, let’s talk. Contact Pope Consulting today to create positive change in the workplace.