As the leader of a large complex organization — like the Catholic Church, Fox News, the State of New York, or the United Nations — the pressure on you to take action to end sexual harassment is enormous. Especially with Ronan Farrow and the New Yorker nipping at your heels and talking to so many disgruntled, fed-up women who have been (temporarily) empowered by #MeToo.
Don’t worry. Patriarchy has been around for more than 10,000 years. It’s good at the long game. Here are five almost foolproof ways you can look like you’re trying to stop sexual harassment in your workplace while making sure that (unlike most of the women who work in your organization) patriarchal power remains untouched:
1. Bring a lot of legal and human resources people and senior managers into leadership teams designing new policies and practices.
This signals that your first concern is protecting the organization. The experiences and abuses that survivors have suffered are secondary. Senior managers are probably some of the perpetrators so will know how to protect their own. The State of New York’s 2018 sex harassment law is a shining example: four men sat in a room to draft the law with no public hearings or input from complainants. These people know who needs protection!
2. Make a case for “objective” internal investigations instead of external investigations by independent experts.
Keeping this an “inside” affair is key to protecting the organization and ensuring that those harassed are too afraid to come forward. Internal investigations can take years, discouraging less-persistent complainants. Some investigations can find a few perpetrators guilty (you know, those rare “bad apples”) and recommend their dismissal… with full benefits and pensions or stock options intact.
Oh, and by the way, don’t forget to have a big going away party for the perpetrator. United Nations staff still talk about the party, in 1994, for Under-Secretary General Luis Maria Gomez who was found guilty of harassing a junior staff member, Catherine Claxton. He was fired, but not before he had a blow-out farewell party with the highest-level UN authorities singing his praises.
3. Convince high-level women to write public statements in support of alleged perpetrators and put senior women in charge of the “change” strategy.
We’ve seen this ingenious strategy in many cases, from media women for Tom Brokaw to Catherine Deneuve leading a chorus that men have the right to “hit on” women. With a little pressure from above, powerful women might join to protect alleged perpetrators publicly. What could be better?
And that senior woman? Choose a proven protector of the patriarchy. The kind that knows how to take one for the team. She’ll be on the front line of making sure power dynamics remain intact.
4. Be careful to use gender-neutral language in your new policy and guidelines so as not to insult men.
You don’t want to make men feel like they’re being attacked, do you? Who cares that about 90% of sexual harassment and assault cases are perpetrated by men? The subtle suggestion that women, too, can be perpetrators is a reflection of your deep commitment to equality.
5. Have half-day (or one-hour) sexual harassment training and awareness sessions for senior managers designed by one of the big consulting firms like KPMG or McKinsey.
Be careful not to hire any feminist or social justice companies that might bring a power analysis to the task. Hey! Let’s not make people uncomfortable. The women and men who have been harassed and spoken out have already made everyone more uncomfortable than we can bear.
We know you know that sexual harassment is not about sex; it’s about power. Everyone’s told you that. So if your goal is to keep the power dynamics in your organization — where you happen to hold power — intact, follow these suggestions and very little will change.
If, on the other hand, you want to see abuse of power sanctioned and halted, there are steps you can take. Start with empowering those who are most vulnerable to the abuse. Put them publicly and purposefully in the driver seat of creating new policies, programs, incentives, and consequences. Stigmatize (and dismiss) the perpetrator, not the victim. Hold people accountable when they break the rules. Build on Truth and Reconciliation processes around the world to enable survivors, staff, and leaders to tell their stories and figure out how to stop abuse of power.
You’ll still look like you’re really trying. And you might disrupt the deep structures of inequality that make sexual harassment possible in the first place.