Focus on Gender Dialogue, Not Debate
These past few months have been fertile with teachable moments about gender issues. Two prominent business leaders—a corporate Chairman and a Chairman/CEO—left their positions: Kevin Roberts resigned because of backlash after proclaiming in an interview that the gender debate is over. Roger Ailes was fired because of sexual harassment.
These events could and should have stimulated conversations that reached level 3 on Judith Glaser’s scale (presented in her book Conversational Intelligence):
• Level 1 (Exchanging information) is about informing, protecting, and confirming what you know.
• Level 2 (Advocating a position) is about influencing and persuading others to change what they know.
• Level 3 (Transforming thinking) is about discovering what we don’t know to co-create new ideas.
The news and social media coverage of the Roberts-Ailes events suggests most of the conversations that followed were at level 1, and some were at level 2. Let’s take a look at what was versus what could have been.
The Gender Debate
Kevin Roberts is a leader in the advertising industry where women are well represented, except at the top women only hold 11 percent of creative director roles. Roberts attributed this gap to ambitions of women that are more well-rounded than those of men. He said women look for meaning, happiness and balance, and do not have men’s “idiotic dinosaur-like” ambitions that focus on vertical advancement. Therefore, let women seek happiness rather than advancement.
The response was ferocious and confirming (level 1) of the frustration felt by so many women that men at the top still don’t get it. Roberts was initially put on a leave of absence, and subsequently resigned as criticism continued to build. None of the articles I read accused him of discriminatory behavior or actions, his unforgivable mistake was expressing what was viewed as an appalling opinion.
What if instead of calling for Roberts’ head for presenting a gender-ignorant “either-or” proposition, he was invited to co-create a gender-enlightened “and” solution in his organization? What if instead of confirming the shortcomings of his thinking, he was engaged in a dialogue about what would have to happen in his company to honor the diverse, multi-dimensional ambitions of men and women AND achieve gender balance at the top? What if such an approach transformed him from being possibility-oblivious to becoming a possibility-evangelist?
The most effective way of addressing any type of deeply held bias is to give the person holding it a different anchoring experience that breaks through the bias. However, if every leader who shares a biased opinion is kicked off the field, our opportunities for real transformation will be lost.
Following disclosures of sexual harassment complaints against Roger Ailes, a question was asked, “What if your daughter faced sexual harassment?” Three responses were widely reported from the perspective of a father, brother and daughter. All three responses generated criticism. In essence the responses and criticisms were:
Father: She should find another career or company.
Criticism: This makes it about the victim. The initiator of harassment, not the recipient, needs to be held accountable for change.
Brother: She wouldn’t allow herself to be subjected to it. But if it happens, report it to HR.
Criticism: Sexual harassment is about strength and power, which too often is not held by the victim or HR.
Daughter: Companies need to create a culture where it doesn’t arise, but if it does, it is dealt with swiftly.
Criticism: It is not a matter of culture—sexual harassment is about breaking the law.
Sexual harassment is much more common than most would like to believe. Victims are most often women, but also include men. The seriousness and impact of sexual harassment can range, for example, from offensive jokes, to quid pro quo propositions, to a broad range of physical violations. Context can vary significantly, as well, from occurring in isolated situations in zero tolerant environments to frequent occurrences of non-physical behaviors or even cases of physical encounters in corporate cultures that have a high tolerance of sexual harassment.
What would YOU do? is a seemingly simple question. However, there are no simple answers because circumstances vary so widely in nature and complexity. Criticizing responses shuts down conversation and ultimately increases ignorance. People won’t express an opinion or ask questions if they fear being harshly judged, and without people sharing what they think, there is no opportunity to explore, enlighten, and transform.
All of the above responses to sexual harassment can be appropriate in certain circumstances. Culture does matter, and in a culture where sexual harassment is tolerated, intervention will most likely need to come from outside the organization in the form of a lawsuit or external investigation. In those cases, regardless of socio-economic status, finding another job may be the right decision for a victim who doesn’t have the stamina or financial resources to either stick it out or take it on in a legal battle. In contrast, in a zero tolerant environment, a victim is more likely to be successful in putting a stop to offensive behavior by personally confronting the initiator, and if that doesn’t work, certainly going to HR will.
What if instead of using Roger Ailes’ firing as an opportunity to confirm beliefs of ignorance and disregard for the ravages of sexual harassment, it was used as an opportunity to create an open dialogue about shifting the paradigm? Right now when deciding what to do about it, the trade-offs rest squarely on the shoulders of the victim to consider the personal consequences of tolerating, leaving, or confronting. What would it take to gain more traction in putting a stop to sexual harassment overall? What is working, and what is not?
So let’s create real change with open, transformational dialogue instead of shutting it down with debate and criticism.
Cindy Petitt is an executive coach and management consultant. She has conducted studies on factors that help and hinder the advancement of women to executive levels in male dominant corporate environments. She also conducts workshops for women on topics such as personal presence, communicating with influence, and leadership; and workshops for men and women on gender differences.