Here's how to end the culture of sexual harassment

Words have power. Too often today, they are being used to tear us down and apart, making us feel helpless and defenseless. Alternatively, words can build us up, strengthen us and give us the ability to move forward together, constructively. I choose to focus on the latter believing that none of us can afford the continued costs of remaining silent.

As a female CEO, I have a responsibility to speak out, and I am compelled to do so now. The pervasive workplace culture of sexual harassment, intimidation and the undervaluing of women must be addressed both swiftly and firmly.

It is now time to take deliberate, verifiable and precise steps to ensure that the ethics of our workplaces cannot be compromised by leaders who put their personal ambitions above their companies’ welfare or those who are indifferent to bad behavior or simply unwilling or unable to prevent it.

For the sake of every stakeholder involved, it is time for the values of mutual respect and kindness to find their way into the workplace.

What can we do?

First, we need to make it absolutely clear that behaviors that have been “accepted” for too many years are intolerable.

Government, corporate and philanthropic communities need to develop mandatory codes of conduct and organizational values, both internally and externally. Employers should exercise leadership by updating existing harassment policies and creating a neutral platform for filing complaints without retribution. Organizations must also train managers and staff on acceptable workplace behavior as well as how to effectively respond to sexual harassment claims.

In addition, organizations that insist upon a safe and respectful workplace should be recognized and elevated for demonstrating best practices. We regularly recognize enterprises for their positive contributions to the environment, being family-friendly and supporting employee health. It should not be difficult to recognize organizations that are firmly committed to keeping their employees safe and unthreatened in the performance of their professional duties.

Technology can be brought to bear to give victims an avenue for redress. An online tool named AllVoices is about to launch and should make it easier for both men and women to report instances of sexual harassment. This app will allow employees to bypass human resource departments and directly report misconduct to CEOs and company boards. (The purpose is not to bypass the process of investigating complaints of harassment but to prevent executives from denying knowledge if the allegations prove true.)

Second, companies also need to do more to promote women’s leadership roles in the workplace. In 2017, the number of women CEOs in Fortune 500 companies registered an all-time high at 32 (6.4 percent), up from 21 last year. Although the trajectory is positive, there is a long way to go.

Women should be on every CEO search committee and candidate interview list. Corporate leaders should decline to appear on speaking panels unless women are represented. Organizations should provide mentorship and sponsorship opportunities for women, creating a clearer pathway for them to become leaders. And, of course, compensation should be fair and equitable with our male peers.

Third, we need accountability. The key to reaching these goals is articulating rules that need to be followed — with clear consequences for noncompliance. CEOs need to say to their boards and to their staffs that no matter what has happened in the past, certain behaviors that constitute harassment — whether overt and explicit or in more subtle sexual innuendos and whispers — will no longer be tolerated. Period.

We also need men’s voices and actions heard and felt in this — because they matter. Men in leadership positions who are willing to stand up and support a safe and fair workplace for all need to use the power of their positions to help advance this agenda. While there has been some leadership, for the most part we are forced to ask: “Where are their voices? What are their actions? Why don’t we hear more of them?” If they are silent, they should speak. If they are speaking only to their employees, they need to speak up so we can all hear them. The collective power of these unified voices will affect the transformation in sentiment and action that we all desperately need.

In the law and society, silence usually connotes assent. We need to speak – and speak loudly. This is not a women’s issue. It is a foundational issue for how all of us live and work together. It is the basis for how we demonstrate respect and human decency in all our interactions. Let us use this moment to speak loudly and take action to strengthen and advance a mandate for the way in which each of us wants to live and how we choose to create the world in which we want to raise our children, regardless of their gender.

Rachel Garbow Monroe (rmonroe@hjweinberg.org) is the president and CEO of the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation, one of the largest private foundations in the United States.

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