Harvey Weinstein, the imbalance of power, how women speaking up is changing the world of work (and what organisations can do to change)

It is a truth universally acknowledged that the pace of change for women in the workplace and in society is… slow. We are bombarded by reports every day which tell us that women are not being integrated into the workplace and continue to experience unconscious bias and discrimination. Whether this is a story about the BBC’s staggering gender pay gap, or Susan Fowler’s blog post about sexual harassment at Uber or the accounts of harassment shared by female tech entrepreneurs published by The New York Times.

The recent revelations regarding Harvey Weinstein-alleging sexual violations and at least 8 settlements to women accusing him of sexual harassment is a shocking reminder of how extensive this problem is. Just as concerning is the fact that ‘people knew’ and turned a blind eye for decades allowing Weinstein to continue his abuse behind closed doors. Secrecy and paying for women’s silence is apparently all it takes.

It begs the question: how many more Harvey Weinsteins are out there? And how many Harvey Weinsteins lurk in our workplace that we don’t know about? Or do we?

How many compromise agreements have been signed to cover up sexual harassment or sexual assault in the workplace over the last few decades?

According to research in the UK by Trades Union Congress and the Everyday Sexism Project, ‘over 52% of women have experienced unwanted behaviour at work including groping, sexual advances and inappropriate jokes’. This figure increases to 63% for women aged 16–24.

What’s possibly more disturbing is that ‘four out of five women did not report incidents to their employers’ fearing it would harm their relationships at work.

Can we assume that organisations may not be aware of how widespread and pervasive this problem is?

Dacher Keltner explains the ‘banality of the abuses of power’ and writing for the Harvard Business Review points to the fact that powerful men ‘sexualise their work’, and he also suggests that we need to consider ‘the social systems in which they commit their abuses’.

How on earth are we supposed to build a gender balanced and inclusive workplace if women (people) do not feel safe?

Is it any surprise that organisations around the world are struggling to solve the ever elusive leaky pipeline problem or the women on boards problem or the women in tech problem, if the ‘women problem’ is actually a ‘social problem’, or more specifically, it is a ‘power imbalance, male entitlement and ‘men sexualise their work’ problem?

All the talk about how important diversity and inclusion is; businesses such as Intel investing hundreds of millions in order to create diversity can be somewhat futile, if the power imbalance and social norms which underpin it are dis-abling the very people it is supposed to support, as story after story proves.

Why would women (people) not want to leave their organisation or why would they want to come back to the workplace if they continue to be mistreated? And so many women do turn away when business after business fails them.

So then, let us look beyond HR policies and procedures and uncover the cultural attitudes, values, norms and behaviour. Begin to rethink what a balanced and thriving organisation needs to be. Identify what is toxic and corrosive, weed it out and replace with the new. Only hire people who reflect and actively practise the culture your organisation has redefined. Get rid of those who don’t. Really start to listen to women (people) and to their stories. No fear. No punishment. Share your learnings. And do.

If we can own up to the harsh truth about where our starting position actually is; how much work will be required to really change things; if we can be transparent and therefore hold ourselves accountable, and we start at the top by shifting the focus away from the ‘abused’ to those who abuse like the Harvey Weinsteins of this world, organisations will start to rebuild a level of trust we often see lacking.

The intention shouldn’t be to ‘make this problem go away’ (which is short for suppress it), or to only see harassment as an isolated event, but rather to think more deeply about how this may be a manifestation of a much deeper, cultural and managerial problem in the organisation.

And here’s the nub of it: if organisations don’t act or are slow to, women (people) will take matters into their own hands. Susan Fowler did, Sarah Lacy is about to publish her book about working mothers and also heavily criticised Uber, Ellen Pao has published her story about workplace discrimination and the case she lost against Kleiner Perkins.

Social media has become a liberating force for underrepresented voices-just check out MeToo on Twitter. And it goes without saying, that women and minorities become more powerful by speaking up together. There is strength in numbers and my guess is if organisations do not start to create real change, women (people) will continue to vote with their feet (and on social media).

By focusing on how to transform a culture into creating an environment women (people) actually want to be in, we will start to build organisations of the future we all so desperately want and need.