Women in the Workplace//

How the #MeToo Movement Inspired Me to Create Even More Change in the Workplace

“One thing this new evidence makes quite clear is that the #MeToo movement has not had a big enough tent”

Sundry Photography / Shutterstock
Sundry Photography / Shutterstock

It was a fine way forward, even if not nearly as good a fit for me as the first career I had chosen. I missed the immediacy and the impact of my old job.

My #MeToo moment lay dormant for decades. It was awoken on October 28, 2017. The occasion was a leadership conference in New York City, where I joined Arianna Huffington for a “fireside chat” on sexual harassment in Silicon Valley. I remember the buzz as we walked onto the stage, the two hundred–odd executives in the room on the edge of their chairs, eager to hear what Arianna had to say. The scandal at Uber was unfolding, and Arianna, who was on the Uber board, had been center stage in a recent move to oust CEO Travis Kalanick. He had been accused of turning a blind eye to sexual harassment and creating a toxic environment for women.

In her famously husky voice, Arianna spoke eloquently about the need to bring down “brilliant jerks” who behave badly. In her view, Silicon Valley worshipped a breed of young male entrepreneurs with hard-core engineering skills who made billions for themselves and their companies. They had become untouchable and could get away with anything. But unless these megastars were called to account for sexual abuse, women would continue to languish and leave the tech sector.

Memories snapped into place in my mind and Sebastian’s face came into focus—crude and terrifying. I turned on a dime, scrapping my prepared remarks. Instead of showcasing new data on sexual misconduct in Silicon Valley—and the failure of women to rise up the ranks—I told Arianna and that roomful of executives about Sebastian Tyler, the “brilliant jerk” who’d harassed and assaulted me all those years ago, running me out of a dream job and a chosen field. I finished with the following thought: “Looking back through the tunnel of time, what hits me is the enormous age gap. I was just twenty-three, for heaven’s sake. He was fifty-two. I didn’t stand a chance.”

The audience went wild. Some of the female executives hollered and stomped their feet. My face broke into a huge Cheshire cat smile. Along with millions of other women who shared their #MeToo stories that week, I felt exultant, buoyant, and free. It was a wonderful thing to break the silence and slough off decades of shame and self-blame.

My cathartic moment in October of 2017 inspired this book. Beginning that winter I kicked off a new project at CTI (a New York–based research organization that I founded sixteen years ago). The goal was to create a rich stream of qualitative and quantitative research that would give depth and heft to #MeToo and increase the possibility that the movement would drive enduring change.

Little did I know about what I was getting into. For the past two years, I’ve been on a particularly wild roller coaster, replete with dips and turns and blind corners. Accusations of sexual misconduct, and the fallout of these claims, continued to rumble and roil through our culture—indeed, barely a week passes without new claims and new damage. But despite the proliferation of cases, some days it seems that we’ve made little progress in figuring out how to deal—consistently and fairly—with either the predators or the prey.

In addition to Harvey Weinstein (the go-to villain of the #MeToo movement) these are just some of the troubling stories that have stood out for me over the last twenty-four months: Google giving a $90 million severance package to Andy Rubin (creator of the Android system) while concealing details of the credible charges of sexual assault that triggered his departure; Terry Crews (a former NFL linebacker and successful actor) winning his sexual assault case against talent agent Adam Venit, only to be attacked by the rapper Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson for failing to fight back “even if that had landed him in jail”; and the recent confirmation (in July 2019) by the Senate of General John Hyten as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff despite credible accusations of sexual assault by Army Colonel Kathryn Spletstoser, a widely respected member of his senior staff.

These stories make abundantly clear that #MeToo is still an unfolding story—the roots of the movement and the narrative of how and why it has spread and swelled over the past two and a half years are still being unearthed and investigated. But already there are some clear-cut gains and wins.

The movement has lifted a heavy burden of pain and shame for millions of women; it has spearheaded a huge shift in public opinion, and victims now have a fighting chance of being believed; it has stripped power from a large number of badly behaved men; and it has reinvigorated efforts on the pay equity front and reinforced moves toward inclusive leadership cultures.

Even as we continue to reckon with these complexities, it’s critical to seek out new and more rigorous data so as to enable a much more complete understanding of the incidence of sexual and other harassment at work. To some degree, the revelations of the last few years have been particularly shocking and hard to deal with because leaders (businesspeople and politicians alike) had no idea that the problem of sexual misconduct was so widespread and deeply rooted. Many naively assumed that the actions of disgraced moguls like Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, or Jeffrey Epstein were outliers. Now we realize that this assumption is false—abuse can be both extreme and commonplace, and employees have been absorbing this abuse not only from white male bosses but also from others. As my treasure trove of new data shows: a peer can also be a predator. An increasingly number of sexual misconduct cases center on a woman as the predator, and certain sectors and industries are particularly prone to sexual misconduct. For example, the incidence of harassment is literally twice as high in the media as in legal services. The devil really is in the details.

One thing this new evidence makes quite clear is that the #MeToo movement has not had a big enough tent: it has not reached beyond the standard story (older white guys hitting on younger white women) to acknowledge, comfort, and support other groups who are also targets of abuse. Think for example of Mahmoud Latif, a gay Muslim man who in December 2018 accused a female supervisor at Morgan Stanley of sexually assaulting him. As we shall see in the pages that follow, men and women of color and LGBTQ employees experience particularly high rates of sexual harassment and assault. Junior, white, straight women are not the only victims, and senior, white, straight men are not the only aggressors.

Another big focus of this book is scoping out the true costs of sexual misconduct. We have come some distance assessing the direct costs—lawsuits and settlements, hits to the brand and to company valuations. But what about the indirect costs? Every revolution has its collateral damage, and this one is no different. In chapter 6, I examine the impact on female progression in particular. As we will see, senior male executives are increasingly skittish about either mentoring or sponsoring junior women, no matter how high-performing they are. Senior men are fearful of gossip and lawsuits. This reaction is having serious knock-on effects, stalling and stunting women’s career prospects, and also depriving companies of diversity in the C-suite and “gender smarts” around decision-making tables.

Excerpt from the book #METOO IN THE CORPORATE WORLD by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. Copyright © 2020 by Sylvia Ann Hewlett. To be published on January 28, 2020 by Harper Business, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.

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