Sexual harassment is the defining issue of our time

January 26, 2018

It’s as simple as this: I have three daughters. When they someday enter the work world, I hope they feel valued, respected and fulfilled. I hope they have an equal chance to succeed. But most of all I hope they feel safe from sexual harassment.

That’s not too much to ask of any workplace. And yet as recent events have shown all too clearly, we have a long way to go.

Personally, as a businessperson and father, I’m glad this moment has finally arrived. Others probably feel the same way. It’s been almost cathartic for America, in a way – a giant sigh of relief. Most people, I suspect, knew sexual harassment has always been a problem, but few likely understood its depth or breadth. I read a statistic the other day from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that said that anywhere from 25 percent to 85 percent of American women have experienced harassment on the job.

That’s not just alarming, it’s ridiculous. This is the 21st Century. Such a thing should not be happening.

So we shouldn’t let this opportunity slip by. This is the defining issue of our time, a moment when we as a nation are called to stand with our mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, and colleagues. We can’t miss it.

Businesses have a critical role to play. Some have already stepped up. GM’s Mary Barra, for one, took her company’s commitment to creating a harassment-free workplace public, saying, “It’s unacceptable to not have a policy. We encourage our employees that if something is happening, they raise it. There will be no retaliation.”

Fidelity Investments’ Abigail Johnson did likewise. After several prominent execs were shown the door for sexual harassment she gathered employees at an emergency meeting and said, “I’d like to remind everyone that we have no tolerance at our company for any type of harassment. We simply will not, and do not tolerate this type of behavior, from anyone.”

She’s right, of course. Such policies are critical. Everyone deserves respect. But it’s a bit more complicated than that, I think. Egregious cases of sexual harassment, like Weinstein’s, can blind us into thinking that’s all there is. But many women can tell us they deal with passing comments all the time. Often these are spoken with no malicious intent or conscious bias, but they can still be unwelcome and negatively perceived. Some of it is just the way we learned to talk, and it needs to change. This is the tricky part. How do businesses help on that front?

We can start by talking. I believe harmony is not accidental. There are ways people can talk to one another, even about difficult things, and emerge better for it. Sounds simple, but it’s not. It’s going to take effort to learn this new language of awareness and respect. It also will take conscious choice, practice, and patience. But doing the hard work of becoming better people is always worth it.

Yes, we need laws. Yes, we should enforce them. And yes, businesses absolutely must have policies that encourage men and women who feel harassed to speak up. But we also need to build this new work culture of respect and trust where real dialogue can happen and people are given an opportunity to grow, learn and improve. That’s how we ultimately make the workplace a better, safer, more productive place for everybody.

Our daughters are counting on us.