The 1992 presidential race was once summed up in a pointed phrase: “It’s the economy, stupid.”
Today, as headlines are dominated by stories about sexual harassment and sexual assault at work, a similar phrase comes to mind: “It’s the power, stupid.”
At 48 years old, I’m lucky that I’ve never been sexually harassed or assaulted by anyone I worked for. The fact that this could be considered lucky is a problem in itself, but based on the numbers, I am lucky. I’ve only ever worked for men, and all of my bosses have been not just respectful, but deeply supportive.
Still, like almost every woman – and some men – I know, I have experienced sexual harassment in the form of unwanted sexual advances in the course of doing my job. A hand on my leg under the table at a meeting. Married men – all decades older than I – offering “career advice” and then suggesting that they could share it with me alone late at night. The conference where a man I declined leaving a dinner with came to my hotel room late at night and banged on my door until I called security.
I didn’t work for any of these men. But in every single one of these situations, they had more power than I did. That’s not a coincidence. It’s why they felt free to cross that line.
As I’ve become more senior and gained more power, these moments have occurred less and less frequently. But they still happen every so often, even in my current job – but only ever with men who, in that moment, feel that they have more power than I do. That’s why I’m absolutely convinced that it’s the power, stupid.
This is a critical moment for anyone who faces unwanted sexual advances at work. Sexual harassment has been tolerated for far too long in the halls of government and companies large and small. For the first time in my professional life, it feels like people are finally prepared to hold perpetrators responsible. I’m cheering – both as my current self and as that younger self who jumped up to bolt the lock on a hotel room door.
But cheering is not enough. And while this is no doubt a watershed moment in empowering victims to speak up, sharing stories – which takes immense courage by itself – is also not enough. We need systemic, lasting changes that deter bad behavior and protect everyone, from professionals climbing the corporate ladder to workers in low-paid positions who often have little power. We need to end the abuse of power imbalances due to gender – and race and ethnicity, too. We must not lose this opportunity.
Too many workplaces lack clear policies about how to handle accusations of sexual harassment. There’s no question that this can be complicated and challenging to address. Some investigations come down to one person’s word against another’s. There are consensual workplace relationships that make others uncomfortable or turn ugly, or harassment that doesn’t involve sex but does involve sexism. And because companies do not have access to tools like criminal forensics or search warrants, they depend on law enforcement to do its part – which doesn’t always happen. Consider the hundreds of thousands of rape kits that remain untouched and untested in police stations across America – sending the message that if you hurt someone sexually, there’s a good chance you’ll get away with it.
Every workplace should start with clear principles, then institute policies to support them. First, develop workplace training that sets the standard for respectful behavior at work, so people understand right from the start what’s expected of them. Second, treat all claims – and the people who voice them – with seriousness, urgency, and respect. Third, create an investigation process that protects employees from stigma or retaliation. Fourth, follow a process that is fairly and consistently applied in every case, both for victims and those accused. Fifth, take swift and decisive action when wrongdoing has occurred. And sixth, make it clear that all employees have a role to play in keeping workplaces safe – and that enablers and failed gatekeepers are complicit when they stay silent or look the other way.
It is my hope that as more employers put thoughtful, effective policies into place – and as more is done to punish the perpetrators – more people will come forward without fear. For too long, too many people have believed that there’s no point in reporting harassment – that nothing will happen, or worse, that it will negatively impact their career. And on the other side, some people are scared that their reputations will be ruined unfairly. Having a consistent and fair process that applies to everyone helps protect against both scenarios and restores a degree of faith in the system.
Most of all, it is my hope that this moment will lead to a stronger, more equitable workplace culture that treats women with more respect and affords them more opportunities.
We have to be vigilant to make sure this happens. I have already heard the rumblings of a backlash: “This is why you shouldn’t hire women.” Actually, this is why you should.
And you shouldn’t just hire women – you should mentor, advise, and promote them. Four years ago, I wrote in Lean In that 64 percent of senior male managers were afraid to be alone with a female colleague, in part because of fears of being accused of sexual harassment. The problem with this is that mentoring almost always occurs in one-on-one settings. One of the most gratifying responses I got from Lean In was when senior men acknowledged that they had been giving fewer opportunities to women, often without really thinking about it. I got call after call where CEOs and some of the most senior men in many industries told me, “I never really thought about it before – but you are right that I take men on the trip and to the dinner rather than women and that is unfair.”
The percentage of men who will be afraid to be alone with a female colleague has to be sky high right now. Doing right by women in the workplace does not just mean treating them with respect. It also means not isolating or ignoring them – and making access equal. Whether that means you take all your direct reports out to dinner or none of them, the key is to give men and women equal opportunities to succeed. This is a critical moment to remind ourselves how important this is. So much good is happening to fix workplaces right now. Let’s make sure it does not have the unintended consequence of holding women back.
Ultimately, the thing that will bring the most to change our culture is the one I’ve been writing and talking about for a long time: having more women with more power.
The world has always been run by men, and it still is today. Only thirteen countries and 6 percent of Fortune 500 companies are run by women. Just 13 percent of police officers are women, and only a few hundred are police chiefs. And less than 20 percent of the U.S. Congress is female.
These numbers reveal a power structure that has marginalized women and others for far too long. We need to see more women in these roles – and more people of color, LGBT individuals, and members of religious minorities and underrepresented groups of all kinds. We are seeing what happens when power is held nearly exclusively by men. It gives rise to an environment in which, at its worst, women are treated as bodies to be leered at or grabbed, rather than peers entitled to equal respect.
It wouldn’t solve all the problems we face if more women were in power – although I believe we could get quite a lot of good done. But one thing’s for certain: many fewer people would be groped and worse while trying to do their jobs. And that would be a major step in the right direction.