On Saturday 14 October 14, Harvey Weinstein was banished of the prestigious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. His former company is in a state of chaos. Weinstein has been unmasked worldwide as a sexual predator, dishonored and rejected, like a general who is publicly and rudely stripped of his medals. Is Weinstein an exceptional sexual monster? No, not really, there are Weinsteins walking around everywhere in great numbers, here too.
The discussion shouldn’t be about Weinstein, but about how it is possible that it has taken until now before something was said about it. For many years and sometimes decades, men like Weinstein can harass or assault their prey without being stopped. It happens everywhere, even in your company. It is very visible, if you want to see it at least. If you may believe the media, Weinstein’s sexual abuse was an open secret. His own staff (including the female employees) helped him to carefully plan and conduct his meetings with unsuspecting young women in hotel rooms and apartments. Weinstein’s true intentions for these “work meetings” were not only known to his staff, they were also systematically facilitated by them. How is that possible in a serious and reputable company?
It has long been known that sexual abuse has more to do with power than with sex. This makes it a topic that should be discussed in boardrooms. After all, a company is almost always organized hierarchically. Therefore, power relations are a given. In power relations between people of the opposite sex, sexual harassment is waiting in ambush: within the family, in church, in sports, in the army and in business, basically everywhere.
Every human being has a constitutional right to respect for his or her personal life. As the main person responsible within a company, how do you translate this into effective protection against unwelcome sexual advances? I’ll mention a few elements and possible solutions. Every employee has an unconditional right to feel safe on the work floor. There should be no misunderstanding about this. That right must therefore be laid down in the staff regulations and in the applicable codes of conduct. Sexual harassment can sometimes be quite subtle: allusions, “innocent” touching, “jokes”. The code of conduct supported by the management must make it clear that all sexual intimacy in the workplace is taboo. Many modern companies have a confidential adviser. It would be wise to appoint both a man and a woman to this position. If a confidential adviser has been appointed, there must also be a protocol for contacting this adviser and for dealing with the identified problem. Confidential and thorough recording of the report are very important in this respect. The person reporting sexual harassment should not experience retaliation measures as a result of it. Therefore, a whistleblower scheme should be in place that offers the complainant adequate protection.
This topic is sometimes seen as a bit of a laughing matter. That makes it hard to put it on the agenda and treat it seriously. Also in this respect the management should take responsibility. Studies show that some behaviors are considered sexually intimidating by women but not by men. It is better to prevent them from occurring by proper and systematic education than through disciplinary action. The topic should therefore be discussed regularly within the context of integrity training at work. This will help men, including those who are “innocent”, to learn what women may experience as unpleasant and threatening.
Finally there’s this. One of the most difficult and tricky aspects of sexual harassment is the alleged consent. “She asked for it”, “she liked it too”, “she was open to it”. Also in the case of Weinstein, he and his staff argued that the women concerned responded to his advances voluntarily. Since sexual harassment and power relations are inextricably linked, this argument can and may never be relevant, even though it seems it might be. Also in the business world, the rule is: zero tolerance!
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It has long been known that sexual abuse has more to do with power than with sex. This makes it a topic that should be discussed in boardrooms.