Reconciliation Is The Key To Ending Sexual Harassment In The Workplace

Harvey Weinstein: 80 women have accused him of sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment has been recognized as a major problem, and accused offenders are falling in a range of industries. At long last victims are receiving a hearing and justice. However, a lasting solution will not occur until reconciliation is achieved.

In the past year Harvey Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly in Media, Al Franken and Roy Moore in Politics, several prominent journalists and venture capitalists, and many others have been accused of sexual harassment, and in many cases forced to step down from positions of power. Impressive numbers of women are tweeting #MeToo. The energy that has been released is scary. Listening to Marketplace Tech host Molly Wood talk about harassment of women in Silicon Valley, I am struck by the seething anger they feel.

A picture emerges of powerful men using their positions to force their attention on women, and, much less often, powerful women doing the same to men. This behavior is widespread and has been tolerated in the shadows for decades. Now institutions are responding quickly with investigations and sanctions, and in many cases pushing the accused offender out. Victims see that they can get a hearing and are stepping forward. We seem to have crossed a cultural watershed: harassment is no longer tolerated and perpetrators will be sanctioned.

The next few years will be busy with hearing a backlog of complaints and taking action. This could go quite far. Ellen Pao, a venture investor who departed from and then sued Kleiner Perkins (a top venture capital firm), and whom some regard as the standard bearer for women abused by the venture establishment, argues that a “total reset” of the venture capital industry is needed*.

Amidst all of this conflict, our paramount goal should be reconciliation. Reconciliation requires four steps: political re-balancing, bringing the facts to light, justice for victims and accused people, and building the foundation to move ahead.

South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation commission provides an illuminating example of how reconciliation can work. It addressed a very tough problem: two centuries of racial discrimination, exploitation, and violent repression. Political re-balancing enabled change: it occurred when South Africa held elections with a broad-based franchise in 1994. The Truth & Reconciliation commission was created in 1995 to drive reconciliation. In a public process, it interviewed victims, recommended reforms and restitution, granted amnesty in some cases and left most for prosecutors. Its work addressed both individual cases and the structural, economic, social, and institutional environment of the Apartheid system. While imperfect, its results are widely admired.

For sexual harassment, political re-balancing is occurring now and seems to have reached a critical momentum. Facts are coming to light as victims step forward and institutions investigate.

Today justice is highly challenged in the sexual harassment arena. Objective evidence about events that occur in private is often scarce. Victims have long felt ignored with good reason. Now the pendulum is swinging against the accused, who often feel they have few rights. Once they are under suspicion, colleagues see them as a big liability: people have been pressured to resign based on rumors alone, before any accuser steps forward or the evidence is examined. Justice is a learning process: companies and courts need to learn how to handle harassment cases well. Reconciliation depends on a better standard of justice for accusers and accused alike. That will require some patience on all sides.

Building the foundation to move ahead is a long-term project. Although it has become a broad-based functioning democracy, twenty years after Apartheid South Africa is still a troubled country. Economic growth is slow, the government has been dysfunctional, and large parts of the non-white population do not enjoy the benefits of a modern society. However, South Africa benefits from a robust civil society and strong constitutional institutions that arose from the Reconciliation process. This gives observers reason to be optimistic for its future.

In the venture capital industry, the NVCA (National Venture Capital Association) has moved strongly to define values and standards designed to proscribe harassment and create a framework for fair treatment of diverse professionals and entrepreneurs, specifically including women. This is real only when people walk the talk. It is ultimately up to the leaders of the very private and powerful firms that dominate the industry to drive and cement change.

Establishing new norms and changing behavior takes time, commitment, effort, and tenacity. It is probably most difficult in arenas where the stakes are highest, like tech, finance, media, and politics. But it will happen better and sooner if we approach the task with a philosophy of reconciliation.

Notes: *From the November 15, 2017 episode of the Marketplace Tech podcast.

First posted @ on November 29, 2017.