The big reveal
Last year was marked by women acting together. In small groups and large, women took on one of the most formidable barriers to gender equality: sexual harassment.
Women and their supporters took to the streets, the airwaves and the courts, charging some of the biggest names in corporate America with sweeping workplace harassment claims under the rug.
Many of these women’s efforts were aimed at ridding the workplace of mandatory private arbitration of sexual harassment accusations, a practice that prevents women from having their day in court or sharing their accusations publicly, so that other women who may be vulnerable to the same harassment would be warned.
Last May, after 14 women who had accused Uber drivers of assault wrote a letter to Uber’s board enjoining them to end mandatory arbitration, Uber eliminated the practice. Lyft quickly followed suit.
That same month, workers at McDonald’s stores in eight states filed 10 complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging they had been sexually harassed or assaulted on the job and had faced retaliation when they complained. At the time, a McDonald’s spokeswoman said the company didn’t tolerate misconduct. “We are and have been committed to a culture that fosters the respectful treatment of everyone,” Terri Hickey said in a statement.
But in September, hundreds of McDonald’s workers who claimed they faced workplace sexual harassment went on strike in 10 cities. Those who led the strike urged the company to hold mandatory training for managers and employees and to create a better way of responding to sexual harassment complaints. McDonald’s responded, noting it has “strong policies, procedures and training in place specifically designed to prevent sexual harassment.”
But the company went a step further, saying, “To ensure we are doing all that can be done, we have engaged experts in the areas of prevention and response, including RAINN (Rape Abuse & Incest National Network), to evolve our policies so everyone who works at McDonald’s does so in a secure environment every day.”
Two months later, thousands of Google employees staged a walkout after The New York Times revealed the company had given millions in payouts to male executives accused of sexual harassment, while remaining silent about their wrongdoing. Employees who organized the global walkout asked for the end of mandatory arbitration, among other things .
A week later, Google changed its policy mandating private arbitration for sexual harassment cases. Facebook followed and changed its arbitration policy the next day.
From 1991 to 2017, the share of U.S. private sector, non-union employees who were subject to forced arbitration rose from 2 percent to 56 percent, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute. While arbitration has its place, especially for women who prefer to maintain confidentiality, organizations must be more forthcoming in their handling of sexual harassment and discrimination claims — and their efforts to put an end to both.
Talented women steer clear of companies that allow hostile, unhealthy or unsafe work conditions. Touting gender equality on a company website is not enough. Companies need to back up their words with decisive action.
A common refrain from victims of sexual harassment — and from women who doubt their company’s gender equality efforts — is the lack of process, commitment and transparency around bias, harassment and discrimination, which often lets perpetrators continue without consequences.
Sexual harassment and gender-diversity training is a must, but here are other actions your company’s leaders can take:
• Publish and share clearly written policies around bias and harassment and make very explicit the consequences for breaking them.
• Encourage employees to speak up if they notice a problem. Appoint selected employees as witnesses to keep an eye out for misbehavior.
• If a complaint is made, respond immediately. A company that does not address an accusation straightaway could be credibly accused of disregarding the complaint or attempting to hide it.
• Communicate to all staff when harassment has occurred and what has happened to the harasser.
• Keep and publish metrics on gender diversity, women’s leadership, pay parity and the number of claims of gender bias and harassment. The most successful companies keep metrics on sales, margins, expenses and profits and share them with employees. Measuring, benchmarking and sharing gender-related metrics is just as crucial to your business.
Companies can avoid putting themselves in jeopardy by treating the elimination of gender bias and harassment as a business priority, with goals set to measurable metrics that are communicated to all stakeholders.
Editor's note: Sarah Alter is president and CEO of the Network of Executive Women, a learning and leadership community representing 12,500 members representing 900 companies and 22 regional groups in the United States and Canada. Learn more at newonline.org.