A Proposal for Lasting Change in Workplace Culture

The last few weeks have been filled with news stories of women’s experiences of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace and beyond, leaving the public expressing shock, dismay and even disgust. What started with the many allegations of sexual assault and harassment surrounding Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein has led to a massive social media campaign to see the sheer number of women impacted by these behaviors in the hashtag #MeToo.

As someone fighting for gender equity for two decades, I can hardly believe it. Not that people are disgusted — they should be — but that their shock and dismay stem from a belief that we have somehow gotten past this sort of thing in 2017.

At the same time, McKinsey & Co. and released a new report on Women in the Workplace, filled with data and statistics showing how women, and especially women of color, continue to experience dramatic inequities in the workplace.

The report also highlighted some male perspectives: Many of them have a very different perception of our achievement of equity and feel the small percentage of women in formal leadership roles shows we are doing a good enough job.

This apparent paradox progress toward equity and persistent inequities is exactly why we are still seeing #MeToo in “shocking” numbers. We compliment ourselves on barriers that have come down, and progress that has been made, and deny that men are still systematically granted privilege that gives them power to get away with harassment and other behaviors we find abhorrent. All. The. Time.

Hollywood, as with other cultural institutions and industries, has not yet changed. We must do better.

Instead of despair about the harsh reality of change — or rather, the lack thereof — I’d like to propose a different approach. We need to change the culture of our systems. What we could see playing out before us is the catalyst for the first steps in systemic change.

Systemic change is a process, and not an easy one, but something that institutions and organizations can do. There are distinct steps to take to move that process forward:

Build awareness. One might think this would be easy given some of the recent news headlines, but don’t discount the human tradition of denial that these issues are a reality in our own backyard. As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg said of the McKinsey report, the first step toward equality is “realizing how far we have to go.” Capitalize on the moments the headlines produce to build an understanding of why gender equity is still an issue, and one that is important to each one of us.

Assemble a team of “champions.” Distributed leadership is critical to long-term change. Your team needs to be representative of all stakeholders in your organization, and include not just women (with attention to the intersection of gender and race/ethnicity), but also male allies. It should include multiple viewpoints from your organization’s structure from upper leadership to entry level. The team will be the spokespeople for change, as well as informants and catalysts for the process.  

Use data. Analyzing and publishing data that speaks to the issue in your own institution is a necessity. Although comprehensive research like the Women in the Workplace report is an effective way to build awareness, all organizations differ in structure and culture, and you need an analysis that is unique to you.

Get good numbers, but also survey people about their experiences. Data can reinforce awareness of the problem by providing facts to those who might still be in denial, highlight blind spots or issues that even champions might not have on their radar, and pinpoint where barriers exist as well as where progress has been made. The analysis should be inclusive of the intersection of gender and race/ethnicity, as well as other identities which impact experience.

Create a plan. Your plan should be tailored to the issues highlighted in your data analysis, but it should also be informed by the situational needs of your organization. The team should be thinking long term for the plan. Systemic change takes time, and initiative fatigue can easily set in if your plan is unrealistically ambitious and unsupported, leading to frustration and failure. Lastly, the plan must include realistic goals and benchmarks. You need to measure your successes and adjust the plan when they are missed.

Persist in leadership and implementation. This step is where many organizations fail in creating systemic change. Setting the plan in motion means that leadership needs to put their full force behind its message. This doesn’t end when the plan is introduced. Leadership needs to continue to stay on message, hold all members of the organization accountable to the plan, from top to bottom. The entire system will never change until all constituents are on board and held responsible.

Sometimes the process for change can be galvanized into action by some tipping point of public opinion. The question I keep asking myself recently is, Have we reached that point yet?

Terri Boyer is the founding director of the Anne Welsh McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership at Villanova University.

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