Most workplaces have a Harvey Weinstein: why are employers so bad at dealing with sexual harassment?

Revelations by the New York Times about the predatory sexual behaviour of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein have made for jaw-dropping reading. The newspaper chronicled allegations against Weinstein from actresses and former employees at The Weinstein Company and the producer’s former company, Miramax.

According to the NYT, Weinstein reached settlements with at least eight women.

While some may view this rolling story as just another “celebrity scandal”, it is so much more. This is a story that many women far removed from the bright lights of Hollywood will understand from bitter experience. It is a story about the workplace and the fact that women at their place of work are daily confronted with sexual intimidation.

Weinstein’s modus operandi was refined over decades: he invited female employees to his hotel room for business purposes, whereupon he would greet them in the nude or ask them to massage him or watch him take a shower.

The dynamic at play will be familiar to many women: powerful men in a position to advance careers, extend patronage or dispense favours making sexual demands of young women who are at their most vulnerable as they seek to build a career.

Many young professional women have had to fend off a Harvey Weinstein early in their careers.

Why are women in 2017 still being subjected to this predatory behaviour in the workplace? At the root of the problem is how some men relate to women. These men have an unblushing sense of entitlement, a demarcation of gender roles and an overblown sense of their attraction to women.

Despite much greater awareness surrounding sexual harassment, in many organisations that awareness is not being translated into more respectful workplaces. Sexual harassment often occurs in organisations with elaborate policies, manuals and procedures purportedly designed such behaviour.

Sexual harassment of women in the workplace is often trivialised as women who can’t take a joke, women as man-haters and the old faithful, political correctness gone mad.

The joke when it comes to sexual harassment is what passes for many companies’ policies and procedures. While it can be argued that some action on sexual harassment is better than nothing, the counter argument is that a pro-forma tick-the-box approach might give a false impression of a safe and respectful workplace while allowing a toxic culture to flourish.

HR is never the answer

Not only are these companies failing to stamp out this behaviour, but when called on to respond to complaints by female employees they fail miserably.

There are, of course, notable exceptions that are well documented and rightly celebrated, but we have seen enough media reports of companies that act with hamfisted disregard for the rights and wellbeing of their female staff to know that sexual harassment at work remains a serious problem.

When it comes to sexual harassment, Human Resources is not the answer. HR is never the answer. HR departments have a clear conflict of interest and their loyalties are clear. When an aggrieved female employee takes her complaint of sexual harassment to HR, the HR manager’s “client” becomes not the employee but the company’s CEO. And the CEO’s first question is usually: “How do we make this go away?” Or better still, “How do we make her go away.”

The impotence of HR was an issue identified in the NYT story: “The human resources operation was considered weak…so some employees banded together in solidarity. ‘If a female executive was asked to go to a meeting solo, she and a colleague would generally double up’ so as not to be alone with Mr Weinstein, recalled [a Miramax executive].”

In the past I have been critical of the “industry” which had sprung up to help companies deal with sexual harassment in their workplaces. This motley band of consultants, trainers and workshop facilitators enable companies to tick the right boxes without making any impact on dysfunctional workplace cultures.

So what can companies do to better understand sexual harassment and more effectively deal with complaints when they arise?

1 Putting a face to sexual harassment

A couple of years ago I was a guest on the SBS current affairs television program Insight which was canvassing the issue of sexual harassment. The most instructive aspect of the program was a panel of women who recounted their experience of sexual harassment in the workplace. Their stories were harrowing. Companies would do well to source such panels of women to share their experiences with senior management and boards. Many men simply do not understand what sexual harassment means. When male leaders understand the extent of indignities, humiliations and even violence that some women are forced to endure in the workplace they may get serious about changing behaviours in their workplaces.

2 Make sexual harassment a board matter

Eradicating sexual harassment must become a board priority. It is in the board’s interest to consider sexual harassment unacceptable in human terms and governance terms. Boards should be satisfied that its executive leadership team is delivering a workplace in which everyone feels valued, safe and productive. Boards should mandate their CEO – not the head of HR – to report to the board on gender, diversity and inclusion to agreed metrics. Those metrics should be linked to remuneration frameworks. Boards should be informed of sexual harassment complaints as they arise as a matter of course.

3 Ensuring a whole-of-company commitment

Companies that rely on off-the-shelf training modules, mind-numbing workshops and flashy consultants will change neither attitudes nor prevailing cultures. And while HR can come up with “best-practice” policies and processes these mean nothing unless there is a whole-of-company commitment to providing a safe and welcoming workplace. Companies should be prepared to invest in an independent audit of the organisation to test the robustness of sexual harassment, gender equity and diversity policies and the cultural environment in which those policies operate. This needs to be a high-level undertaking with the commitment to make the necessary changes to tackle sexual harassment and corrosive cultures head on. Former Sex Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Broderick, now principal of Elizabeth Broderick & Co, conducts such reviews: that’s the calibre of person needed.

4 A better approach to dispute resolution

Disputes between female complainants and their employers escalate because of inadequate mechanisms for hearing, assessing and resolving complaints. Whatever their formal policies might state, companies too often treat sexual harassment as a matter for damage control. Treating the victim as “the enemy” or even quietly making a settlement means nothing changes and toxic cultures are allowed to fester. If existing systems are proving inadequate companies need to get creative – and be prepared to make the necessary investment – to ensure the integrity and effectiveness of dispute resolution processes. One course may be to immediately call in external advisers to take charge of the process whenever a complaint is received. Another is to establish permanent external panels of qualified persons to directly receive and adjudicate on complaints of sexual harassment. The key word in both examples is: external.

5 Making women visible

It’s a message that many men fail to grasp: workplaces are, for historical and cultural reasons, essentially male-dominated domains. Even when there seem to be plenty of women in an organisation masculinist business cultures predominate, women in leadership are inadequately represented and inequities such as the gender pay gap set the tone of workplaces. Sexual harassment reflects a certain view of women. A workplace in which men and women are seen to be on an equal footing will change workplace dynamics for the better.

As for Harvey Weinstein: he’s toast. More allegations about his behaviour as a bully and sexual predator have surfaced; his wife has left him; and The Weinstein Company board has dismissed the disgraced producer from the company he co-founded.

For his part, Weinstein has said in an interview that he is “terribly embarrassed” and is seeing a therapist.

 I am going to fix myself, I am going to fix how I deal with women and how I deal with my temper and power. I came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when all the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different.”

Our thoughts and prayers are with Weinstein’s therapist.

Leo D’Angelo Fisher is a Melbourne journalist and commentator. He is a former columnist with BRW and the Australian Financial Review. He was also a senior writer at The Bulletin magazine. Twitter: @DAngeloFisher

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The media’s role in driving workplace diversity: the risks and rewards of a sometimes rocky road

We’ve heard about the role of diversity in business, why it’s important and the strategies and challenges involved in seeking and managing a diverse workplace. But how well is that diversity reflected in the media? And what role does the media play – and what role should it play – in promoting and shedding light on the diversity agenda?

As journalists, it’s our job to hold a mirror to the business community and the nation’s workplaces. Our role is to challenge, to champion change – to act as a medium through which change is championed by others – to moderate and filter.

The media has been an agent of change for diversity. If you have any doubts about that, compare any of the daily newspapers through the decades and the differences will be stark – both in editorial and advertising content.

From the media’s perspective, however, seeking to reflect diversity can be fraught with unexpected pitfalls.

There are some senior women in business, for example, who flatly refuse to be interviewed about gender issues. They argue that there is more to being a successful woman in business than simply talking about women in business. They do not want to be seen through the prism of gender activism.

Diversity can be a sensitive topic, and occasionally in the eye of the beholder. One manager of Asian heritage told me of his annoyance at being asked by his company’s in-house communications team to be featured in a story about diversity. This man was a fourth-generation Australian and he resented being seen in that light.

In 1998, I was a staff writer with The Bulletin magazine and I covered what was dubbed “the Gutnick tapes” affair. The story involved the disclosure of taped telephone conversations in which employees of Melbourne stockbroking firm JB Were were heard to make anti-Semitic comments about businessman Joseph Gutnick and other Jewish investors.

My story examined the question: is there an undercurrent of anti-Semitism in Melbourne’s business community? I spoke to and featured comments from several Jewish community leaders and businessmen, and Gutnick himself.

The story won praise for shedding light on the contentious and uncomfortable issue of anti-Semitism; but it also attracted criticism, from members of the Jewish community, that the story might potentially fan anti-Semitic sentiment. These critics were basically arguing against rocking the boat. One Jewish leader who had become aware that I was writing the story contacted my editor to express his concern.

It’s important to write such stories, even when they may cause discomfort to some. Experience shows that lasting and substantive change doesn’t just happen. Discredited attitudes take root in silence and indifference.

Recently on my site I revisited the subject of anti-Semitism, which in recent years has assumed a much higher and more disturbing profile. To eradicate anti-Semitism it must be confronted, but it’s a subject that still causes great discomfort, within the Jewish community, and within the media itself.

When ‘the right thing’ is not so obvious

Sometimes the media can tie itself in knots in attempting to do the right thing.

A few years ago, an internal debate raged at a Fairfax magazine when it was proposed that magazine run a list of Asian directors on the boards of ASX 200 companies. The story was framed in the context of the Gillard government’s Asian Century whitepaper and its call for more Asian experience on company boards. Internal critics of the list argued that such a list was racist.

In the end a list was run, but it was limited to Asian-born directors on the top 100 boards – that is, not the original list which would have also included Australian-born Asians. This distinction, it was felt, removed any racist overtones.

BRW magazine used to run several very popular lists throughout the year: the top entrepreneurs, the fastest 100 growing companies, the leading franchises, the best companies to work for… and so on.

With each ranking came the usual complaints: why aren’t there more women on these lists? The answer was simple: these lists were dependent on individuals and businesses nominating themselves: but relatively few women did, even when they received a prod from us to do so.

In 2012, I wrote a cover story for BRW about Carolyn Creswell, the woman behind the hugely successful Carman’s range of muesli products. Carolyn is a very warm, very successful entrepreneur who many women – men and women, but certainly women – find inspirational. Even so, I wasn’t really surprised when we started receiving letters from readers complaining that it was typical that a “male-centric magazine” like BRW should feature an attractive woman on the cover. (At the time, the editor of this “male-centric” magazine was Kate Mills.)

It’s just a fact of life that you can’t please all of the readers all of the time. Editorial judgment doesn’t get side-tracked by that kind of criticism. But it can be tricky terrain.

Most prominent women in business would assert that the business media is sexist.

Melbourne company director Carol Schwartz is perhaps the most vocal critic of the business media for being dominated by male editors, male journalists and male businessmen. I just don’t think that’s true anymore.

Overall, I believe we are seeing more female bylines and more ethnically diverse bylines, and we are seeing more women and non-Anglo people in the business media.

But it does raise the question: How far should the media go in ensuring diversity is well represented in its content?

When I write a feature on a particular topic I will start by working on a list of sources. Some will come from my own network or knowledge of the subject matter, but in many cases I will also cast the net with PR contacts for someone or some business that may fit the bill.

Thinking outside the diversity square

My priority here is to find a relevant contact, but it’s also a way of ensuring that my stories don’t comprise the usual suspects. When I send out the call for potential contacts, I don’t stipulate that diversity be a consideration: my interest is in finding the most appropriate contacts. But the PRs I approach are free to think a little bit outside the diversity square in who they nominate.

In most cases, that contact list will be a diverse grouping, reflective of the wider community. But it won’t always be the case; and even so it may well transpire that the women or non-Anglos on the list may not be available, or interested or necessarily be right for the story.

The view that there is an institutional gender or cultural bias in the media is wrong. Editors, by and large, are very much attuned to the issue. Diversity is something that most editors are conscious of – as one of the many aspects of a publication that must be considered in producing the best possible product.

At BRW, in recent years, there were conscious efforts to get more women in the magazine. A couple of years ago, BRW editor James Thomson – now companies editor at the Financial Review – dedicated an entire issue of the magazine to women to coincide with International Women’s Day. It was a landmark issue.

Also at BRW, to overcome the male-dominated, self-nominated lists, we introduced lists such as the ’30 richest self-made women’, which was based on our research, rather than relying on self-nominees.

But how far should the media go in ensuring diversity in their publications? In the United States in November last year, Bloomberg took the radical step of introducing a “quota for quotes”. Now retired editor-in-chief Matthew Winkler issued this directive: “All Bloomberg News [stories] must include at least one woman’s voice, and preferably a balance of men and women. Women are engaged in every topic we cover. Our journalism should reflect that variety.”

I can’t see it working, nor do I think such hard and fast rules are desirable. Journalistic red tape is not the answer. And if a quota for female voices is desirable, why not for other groups? That said, I certainly understand the motivation.

Journalists have a critical role in promoting diversity – in many respects simply by doing their jobs professionally rather than taking on the mantle of social activists. Communication practitioners, too, can promote diversity in and through the media.

Most journalists are interested in writing stories that are relevant, accurate and engaging, which necessarily means reflecting their audience and the wider community; and most journalists, I believe, are interested in being socially responsible.

How corporate comms can promote diversity

Communication professionals – whether in-house or external media advisers – can play an active part in advancing the diversity agenda:

01 For communications professionals who want to promote diversity in the media: I will start with this very basic but fundamental advice – understand the media, understand the role of the journalist, understand what is news and what is newsworthy, and always consider your pitch not simply in terms of what’s ideal coverage for your organisation, but what fits the interests and audience of a particular journalist and his or her publication.

02 When pitching a diversity-based story – for example, how a company has implemented diversity management targets – think beyond the HR director as the media contact, avoid diversity jargon, and try not to take the high moral ground. Provide meaningful data, illustrate how the program has worked, provide names and details of people who have benefited from the program, and convince your CEO to be prepared to talk about the program and the value of diversity to his or her organisation.

03 When issuing media releases, provide alternate contacts, even if they don’t feature in the body of the release, to provide journalists with optional contacts that reflect the diversity of your organisation.

04 When arranging speakers for your own conferences, or providing speakers for external conferences, be mindful of the opportunity to promote diversity through your choice of speaker.

05 Compile contact lists for journalists that reflect the diversity of your organisation. A directory is one option, but also consider tailoring a less expansive list to the particular interests of a journalist, with maybe half a dozen contacts. If you’re targeting a writer who specialises in workplace issues, tailor a list accordingly – it may be the chairs of in-house diversity, cultural or LGBT committees, for example, or a list of employees who have won awards or have some special achievement. You can issue a fresh list every month or quarter. Journalists will keep the names they want for their own contact books.

06 Various organisations compile media contact or speaker lists; these are usually for women in business, such as the Women’s Leadership Institute which compiles a Women for Media Database. Encourage notable women in your organisation to be on those lists. If your organisation is part of an industry association, consider the creation of an industry-wide database of contacts.

07 If you’re not already part of the content marketing revolution, becoming your own publisher is an ideal way to promote the diversity of your organisation with key stakeholders, including the media. ANZ BlueNotes is a perfect example.

This is an edited transcript of a presentation to the International Association of Business Communicators (Vic) forum, ‘Driving the Diversity Agenda’, Melbourne, 18 March 2015.