Pandora’s box has been opened – surely the business world is next?

At a time when a tiny percentage of the population are offended by whether they are being asked to tick male or female on a form and are actually taken seriously, it is shameful that the extent to which women are marginalised and excluded through sexual harassment and sexually harassing cultures is only just now being revealed.

As a young City analyst in the eighties I was warned about a number of business leaders that I should avoid being on my own with, particularly in social settings. One well known retail CEO tried to get in a lift with me late one Friday night and was stopped by one of his colleagues. The annual Investment Analysts’ dinner should have remained a male only event, such was the eye opening behaviour of many of the men there at the end of the evening.  In those days it came with the territory and you learned to deal with it, or left.

My experience as a consultant advising on culture and gender, is that it is still the case that wherever a workplace is predominantly male, women can be made to feel unwelcome in a myriad of ways.  Individual sexual harassment and more importantly a culture which condones it is one such way.

In the late nineties and early 2000’s many large organisations introduced codes of conduct around behaviours at work,  including sexual harassment. But in many less regulated and less centralised workplaces, insisting on respectful behaviour has been more difficult and employees working in those environments often have had no recourse to support. They rely on having a good boss and if he is the problem, tough.

The emphasis on behaviours has lessened in recent times as attention turned to the more intangible barriers to women’s progress at work. Sexual harassment fits uneasily into the diversity discourse where notions of discrimination and power are absent.  My survey on gendered organisational cultures has a section on sexuality including asking about unwanted sexual attention. Clients have often asked me to remove this section, perhaps fearful of the results.

When an issue is not acknowledged, it is not discussed but it does not go away. It remains underground until such time as its existence is revealed and is legitimised as wrongdoing – usually by the male dominated establishment. Until this point women’s experiences and even complaints can be dismissed or passed off as individual misfortunes. Now that the establishment is no longer colluding with but condemning sexual harassment, women now feel more confident in speaking out. This explains why the floodgates have opened. Surely the business world is next.