Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse, they did! I’m talking about sexual bullying, innuendos, harassment and assaults in the workplace. We can be deluded into thinking this is a recent pattern. It is not. We can consider Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose and Matt Lauer. But this is not merely an entertainment-/media-industry issue. This is relevant wherever a power dynamic is in play, where a male-dominated culture can be a sense of immunity from being found out—or believed if called out.
As women, we’ve known that childbearing and child-rearing can derail our ambitions and careers. We’ve also understood the negative impact of not getting male allyship in early and midcareer. Sexual harassment, while widely experienced, has been kept undercover; the isolation of women’s experiences—and their unwillingness or inability to speak openly about them—kept this third rail from being exposed. We must not overlook the courage required for women to speak out: fear of job loss, being denied advancement opportunities, being attacked professionally or physically. With the #MeToo campaign, the sheer volume of women speaking out about their experiences of being sexually bullied by male colleagues and powerful senior men makes it clear that many women’s careers have been stunted. Think of what might have been?
I began my career as a commodities trader, and my aspirations required that I be a pioneer. The roles that involved advancement simply did not have a history of people who fit my profile: woman trader, person of color, immigrant, married and having a child, while on the job, and—the ultimate surprise—a top producer. While sexist and crude jokes ruled the day, they were never directed toward me, at least not to my face. I didn’t appreciate how lucky I was to be in a role that measured you so objectively; all that really mattered was your trading prowess. When you were a rookie and at the base of the power hierarchy, you got picked on unrelentingly; it didn’t matter whether you were male or female, citizen or immigrant, young or old.
It wasn’t till I became a wealth adviser that I saw the depth and breadth of the misogyny. The sexism wasn’t restricted to dirty jokes. The women in the office— mostly young administrative and operations assistants—were subjected to merciless harassment. Once again, as one of the few like me, I was at the base of the power hierarchy, determined to climb up and have the power to change things. It took me six years to break into the top ranks. In that time, my deepest regrets were about remaining silent to the harassment and abuse directed toward the more-junior female staff. My behavior was complicit; I was building my own political capital and was unwilling to spend any of it on challenging the establishment.
Sadly, that blind eye is as ubiquitous today as it was then among women trying to move up. Perhaps one outcome of our changing climate is that not only are women finding their voice when subjected to bad behavior, but senior women might also be more active in ensuring workplace fairness. As peers of some of these men, it will be harder for us to hide from our responsibility. The young women will, and should, look to us for help; and senior management and shareholders might expect, if not demand, that we play a more active role in protecting the brand from predatory behavior.
This culture of abusive behavior has existed for generations, but now a tidal wave of women is rising up against powerful men who are physical or emotional abusers. It’s clearly the right time to speak out against it. Let us call it out when we see it; let us change cultures; and let us speak about it with our grandfathers, fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, grandsons, friends and colleagues. We talk about building strong, courageous and resilient daughters; let us teach the men in our lives—especially our sons—how we want them to treat the women in their lives. From their initial interactions with girls, let us let them know what their accountability is. Throughout their lives, let them be guided by the thought, “If I did or said this, what would my mother say?” Then and only then can we count on enduring change.