The latest protests about sexual harassment and violence against women around the world are straws in a wind that only seems to be blowing harder. It’s time for smart business to revisit and revise policies and practices, and to speak up more loudly on the changes needed
The world seems to be at tipping points at so many levels: social (such as BLM or #metoo), environmental (the focus on climate and biodiversity) and economic (growing inequality and a sense of capitalism in crisis). But of all, the most pressing concern must be to address gender harassment and violence and all that goes with it.
The time has come when men must decide whether they are the perpetrators, victims, or silent enablers of a multi-millennial system that works (moreover is rigged) against our mothers, sisters, partners, daughters and friends.
The game is unfair for women at so many levels that I can’t begin to understand why they aren’t even more angry—and why we sons, brothers, partners, fathers and friends aren’t also.
Look at some of the facts.
Most of the world’s founding religious texts place greater restrictions on women than men. They were almost certainly written by men and today are still mostly interpreted and enforced by men.
Most social systems reinforce this with a patriarchal narrative that gives women’s voices lesser value (or none) and place women at a distinct disadvantage in making decisions on the home front, on matters of property, and in the workplace.
Most legal systems lack either the laws, or the legal enforcement, that would enable women to live free from domestic violence, harassment and rape (or too regular fear of the same).
The fact that it is a rare woman who has not experienced some form of harassment in her life – or worse – should prompt profound reflection by all men and also at governmental level.
Even in the most gender-progressive countries, our economic systems still routinely treat women as inferior in terms of pay, status, and leadership prospects. They are usually unable to be the economic equals of men.
To add injury to insult, women are routinely defined and marketed in a narrowly sexual and ageist manner. Too many are commercialised and even trafficked.
At the root of all this, most cultures still fail to teach boys to behave respectfully and appropriately towards women; to call out sexual harassment when they see it; and, to recognise the greater human-rights and diversity issues at play which affect all humankind.
The time has come for a complete rethink and reset on what constitutes appropriate male behaviour, and it starts by treating women as equal in every way.
Step up business!
So, what does all this mean for 21st century companies?
Smart business has long since understood the importance of women, not only in their “traditional” roles, but as customers, colleagues, innovators, investors and opinion makers.
It has expanded the role of women in governance and more widely in the workforce. It has put in place codes of conduct proscribing harassment and other unacceptable behaviour. It has, mostly, held inappropriate male behaviour accountable.
It is, however, no time to rest on laurels, real or imagined. The momentum for full gender justice will not subside, nor should it. This is not an issue that should be left only to governments and rights groups. It needs to be embraced, owned and advanced by the business sector as good citizens.
If they haven’t already done it, business leaders should consider putting in place:
· women’s rights representatives at board, C-suite and HR level and making a female-friendly and safe workspace a standing agenda item;
· early warning and complaint mechanisms that encourage female staff to flag and hopefully pre-empt problematical behaviour;
· discussion groups that enable women to share experiences and advise management (including male colleagues) on how women’s – and all human – rights might be better protected in the workplace; and
· a company-wide discussion about integrating women’s rights into the business and communications strategy and in relationships along the entire value chain, whether it contains sweat shops or not.
Equality = excellence
The art of management should be to create an environment that is not seen by male staff as a punitive regime (which it may initially feel to some), but as a celebration of a workplace that lives and breathes equality, excellence and freedom from fear.
If we’re lucky, business can use this tipping point not only to build trust, competitiveness and market share, but also to help society make major progress on the other great global issues, where the full contribution of half the world’s population will be ever more crucial.
A former diplomat and associate fellow of the Royal Institute for International Affairs at Chatham House, Paul Hohnen has advised governments, international organisations and business on high level sustainability policy issues over a 40-year career.