All of the recent news stories about sexual harassment and exploitation of women in the workplace have been sickening and disturbing on so many levels. First, learning that the alleged behavior was so blatant and involved several high-profile people. Second, that it involved many women, spanned many years, and also was so recent (this is 2017—sometimes it feels we are going backwards!). Third, that the allegations cross many sectors and political divides. Fourth, and what I find most distressing, is that the alleged behavior required conspiracies of silence within well-known organizations. Apparently, many people knew what was going on, and even participated in it, but did not speak up. They were fearful or thought it was not their place to question.
What is heartening about all of this disheartening news is that the women who were abused and harassed had the courage to tell their stories. It is also heartening that they are being heard, and given support by the media, political leaders and Americans. Finally.
While we may be shocked by the allegations of sexual exploitation, we should not be surprised. The dynamics that allow abuse to occur exists in most hierarchical organizations. People at all levels with power over others often believe and act as though they “own” the talents, time and careers of their underlings. Many believe themselves to be superior beings to their subordinates, and will exploit their “resources” for their own gain. They believe that no one else has the right to interfere with their “style” of management. Further, everyone within a strict hierarchy is trained to “never question management” out of fear of being fired or retaliated against. These are the rules of the work game in so many organizations that allow people in power to abuse people with less power, and get away with it.
Abuse is an extreme version of the lesser indignities and frustrations both men and women feel every day under the crush of controlling hierarchical dynamics that give them no voice. To root out the abuse, we must root out the unequal power dynamics that allow it to exist. We must embrace principles of democracy—freedom, mutual responsibility, justice, transparency and checks and balances—in the workplace, just as we strive to apply these principles in our politics.
At the heart of democracy is a fundamental belief that all persons are equal—regardless of gender, race, national origin, religion, sexual identity or any other defining characteristic. Abuse and exploitation can only exist when perpetrators do not see their victims as their equals. Women are particularly vulnerable to abuse because they are not valued in the larger society as equals to men. We have made strides in equality but have a long way to go as a nation in terms of seeing and valuing women as equals to men.
For example, in another recent news story, a professional athlete was roundly criticized for thinking it was funny that a woman sports reporter would know about the intricacies of the game. The outrage about such blatant sexism from the sports media was encouraging. However, full equality within the sports world would go beyond granting respect to the women who cover men’s sports. It would extend as well to providing the same respect to women who actually play sports. Women are not just reporters, they are athletes and deserve the same respect, coverage and attention as men, though they seldom get it, even in the sports world that congratulates itself on calling out sexism in their ranks.
Let us continue our journey toward equality for all people, including women, to realize the great dream of American democracy where all are free of oppression, abuse and harassment.
For more radical ideas on how to transform workplace dynamics, see my book, Management Culture at mgmtculture.com or amazon.com.