What’s a Nice Company to Do?

By Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Davia B. Temin (CEO of Temin & Co.)

In the current sex harassment meltdown, companies are buying a record amount of insurance. That’s not going to save them. Nor is hiding behind lawyers, codes of conduct, or even sealed settlements. Tensions are high, tolerance is low, spotlights are focused, tech is at our fingertips, and women may be at a tipping point, where silence can no longer be bought.

What can save you from joining the growing list of companies in the headlines? Proactivity now on a range of gender issues (from pay gaps to gender imbalances on your leadership team) is your best insurance. Otherwise, you are likely at risk of some male employee, somewhere, using his relative power (and it doesn’t take much) to hassle some women and wreak havoc with your reputation – and your brand. In fact, it has probably already happened, but proactivity could spare you some of the fallout. If you think this is limited to a particular sector or country, you may want to think again. Patriarchy is a global phenomenon, and so will be its choppy unravelling.

Many male business leaders are not (yet) very skilled or even interested in gender issues. They haven’t needed to be. They usually think it is enough to be a ‘champion’ of their women’s network and swear support to the principle, and then pass responsibility on to a woman on the team, or to the Diversity Council. This has always been a risky under-estimation of the issue at hand: the rebalancing of power, education and financial clout between men and women in the world.

Until now, some of the force motivating change within organizations has been fear of financial risk. Huge settlements awarded to individual, or groups of women able to prove examples of discrimination or harassment, have been rumored but not substantiated. Settlements have been quickly sealed, the women removed, non-disparagement agreements immediately put in force, and the perpetrators (usually high producers) protected under veils of secrecy.

But this formula is crumbling as women become unwilling to sell their silence, or reappear after years or decades, ready to tell their stories publicly despite their settlement agreements. ‘We dare you,’ they say, ‘to try to enforce our gag orders, once we’ve gone public.’ What used to be mainly a financial risk has now morphed into a far more serious reputational risk.

As we are soon to hit the hundredth anniversary of women getting the vote in the US and UK, it is striking to note how often this huge societal and economic transformation is still minimized in the workplace, framed as a ‘women’s issue’, or handed to HR staffs to deal with. The first issue for companies will want to reassess is who is accountable for gender issues. This makes all the difference. Our answer, and one we have been pushing for a decade, is leaders. Until leaders change their own attitudes to gender issues, no one else will. And if it isn’t on your executive team’s strategic agenda, it’s likely you are at risk.

Here’s a simple audit to see if your leadership team is gender-ready:

  • Is your leadership team (all of them, not just the CEO) convinced that gender is a business issue, and able to convincingly explain why, on camera and off?
  • Is each ExCo member accountable for the gender balance in their business areas?
  • Are leaders familiar with the gender breakdown of customers, end-users, regulators, and investors?
  • Are they knowledgeable about the current situation of the company’s internal gender (im)balance and what the company is doing about it?
  • Is senior management role modeling leadership styles that are aspirational to both men and women or is it a boys’ club with an occasional adaptive woman thrown in?

Throwing a list of well-meaning initiatives at the issue won’t help if the basic audit above isn’t on track. Unconscious bias training doesn’t make a dent in some of the very conscious bias now being revealed in routinely predatory cultures. It will not provide you with the insurance you need. Only deliberate, systemic change can do that. And the impetus is now here. Corporate cultures are mirrors of their leadership teams. It is time to check your reflection.

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