A collective voice broke through the depths of social media in the form of the #MeToo movement. Suddenly, a prevalent issue a majority of women had been facing for years was illuminated. Around the world we witnessed it—on the news, at entertainment award galas, and especially on Twitter as women shared stories of harassment, bias, and inequality they had faced from men and, sometimes, other women.
From being a professional in the financial industry to creating scalable leadership development programs like Mentoring Method, Women Evolution, and Inclusion 360, I’ve witnessed plenty of instances of conscious and unconscious bias firsthand. I’ll be the first to admit, my own reactions have varied, and there have been times when I didn’t respond in a way that championed change. A nervous laugh, awkward silence . . . by staying quiet, I did nothing to actually tackle the exclusionary behavior I was seeing. I see now that inaction alone can demonstrate that such behavior is accepted in the workplace.
I finally asked myself the question, “How do I gracefully address offensive behavior without creating more of a divide?” It’s easy to see how public admonishment can produce separation. We’re seeing this type of division in response to the #MeToo movement. Men have become fearful of saying or doing the wrong thing and are dealing by simply excluding women, forming an even larger chasm than before.
It’s also easy to see the impact that exclusion and harassment have on people, no matter if it’s conscious or not. From feelings of alienation to low company morale, the effects are far-reaching and create a ripple of negativity throughout the workplace. The by-product is high turnover and a culture of unhappy employees with low productivity.
The gravity of the #MeToo movement has made it clear: Change is required.
Change has to begin where we can create it. Championing change is not about being on a crusade to right every wrong. It’s about small steps and making an impact when you can—seizing those uncomfortable moments where instead of staying silent, you speak up in a way that highlights the exclusionary behavior and hopefully creates mutual understanding. It’s giving people the tools they need to take ownership of and directly impact their relationships with their team and their boss.
Recently, I had the chance to make an impact at a Thought Leader Summit where the keynote speaker was editor in chief of one of the largest media companies. He was describing how cutting taxes for everyone across the board will make people happy. Happy people spend money. He initially used a former president as an example and made a joke that went something like, “Mr. President had his . . . indiscretions.”
The main point he was trying to make in the first place was he believed the president in question did a great job of stimulating the economy and even though he was impeached, the public forgave his indiscretions because people are forgiving if they are making money and are happy. The parallel was that if a president cuts taxes and gets people happy and spending money, that will stimulate the economy and then maybe people will "forgive his sins" as well.
I don't know about you, but I immediately interpreted what he said to mean that any sin, including derogatory behavior toward women, can be absolved if a president does a good enough job stimulating the economy (something I believe most would disagree with). The more I thought about it, the more I felt like the speaker probably had no idea how this message can be misconstrued, and someone should tell him.
Silence can be mistaken for collusion, agreement, or acceptance. I waited until the whole conference ended before approaching the keynote speaker. I took a deep breath and walked right up to him and said, “Excuse me sir, I want to thank you for today, and for your keynote. You are such an innovator and are such an aware leader. I was hoping I could give you two pieces of feedback from your keynote presentation. There were a couple of comments you made that rubbed some of the women in the audience the wrong way and I want to bring it to your attention because I do not think it was your intention."
I listened openly as I waited for him to respond. He said, “Yes please, I would love your feedback.” When I brought up his initial joke he immediately said, "Oh, that was not good. You are right."
Then I went in for the deeper message I received. He immediately said, "I meant growth dissolves political sins! Not that!" He was shocked. I remained calm and said, "I know—that is why I wanted to say something because I figured it was not your intention, and I don't want others to get the wrong message."
I purposely spoke with him privately and gave him the benefit of the doubt. Your approach matters as much as the message being communicated. Keeping this in mind and following a step-by-step strategy to address exclusionary behavior enables each of us to become an advocate for change.
If you think about it, every day we hear comments that could potentially be addressed.
For example, while waiting for the microwave in the break room, you notice two people passing by a full-figured woman eating a salad for lunch and one comments, “She’ll be hungry in 10 minutes.” Or what about when someone says that’s “so gay” or “don’t be retarded” or “I don’t want to be on that old guy’s team”?
It might feel scary to speak up and break the silence because you don’t want to get involved or believe it’s not your place. But when we harness the courage to address exclusionary behavior, we disrupt the tendency to normalize that behavior.
The truth is, we will never develop a culture of zero harassment, because creating an inclusive culture is a journey requiring continuous growth. We can, however, work in partnership to develop a more empowering culture of mutual respect in the workplace—a task that requires less division and a little more mutual understanding and enlightenment.