By the time this essay sees the light of day, our election will be over and some of the vitriol of this campaign may be behind us. It will be remembered for many things, not the least of which will be the discussion of sexual harassment and the treatment of women in the workplace. The presidential campaign was the “highlight” of the news but the advertising and the media industries have had their shares of gender harassment scandal this year as well. The CEO of J. Walter Thompson resigned after being accused of making rape jokes, the executive chair of Saatchi and Saatchi resigned after making dismissive comments about gender diversity and a 4A’s survey showed that more than 50% of women in advertising reported being sexually harassed. Then there’s Roger Ailes. Old news. Sexual harassment is still a huge issue in the workplace. But let’s be clear. This is not really about sex; it is about power and how that power is wielded over others. While most women don’t get threatened in the workplace, they do get reminded almost daily that someone else has power and they’d better remember it!
Many years ago I was doing strategic research at the New York Times and working on a project that was helping to shape the paper for the next generation of readers. The project was titled, “The Futures Project” and it was called so without irony. Our team reported to the Publisher and the President. I was getting ready to report on our results – and recommendations – for one of the Times’ sections and we were gathered in the conference room next to the Publisher’s office, waiting for him to arrive. I was nervous and the reputation of the editor responsible for the section in question did not reassure me. The room was full and quiet. I was standing at the front. The senior editor said, loud enough for all to hear, “Kathi, while we wait, catch me up. I know I saw you pregnant not that long ago. Who cares for your children while you are here deciding the future of The New York Times?”
The salvo was not lost on me. “My husband quit work and is the full time parent at home. My children are quite well cared for, thank you.”
“My god, could you do anything more emasculating to that poor man? I guess I am just old fashioned. The world changes.”
“And sir, so does The Times,” I threw in just as the Publisher walked in.
This battle of quips was a draw. But he was reminding me who had the power; he was putting me in my place.
We read about the egregious behavior of only a few powerful people, thank goodness. But that doesn’t address the many subtle differences in how we speak about men and women, how we report on men and women and how we manage men and women in the workplace. All these differences tell us that women have less power. These differences are so ingrained in our culture that they are virtually invisible. But these subtle differences build and burrow into the psyche of all of us.
Let me offer a few examples:
· Nearly 80% of digital and print media stories about companies in crisis cited the CEO as a source of blame when the CEO was a woman compared to 31% of stories assigning blame to male CEOs in stories about companies in similar situations, according to an analysis by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Global Strategy Group.
· When writing about female CEOs 16% of the print or digital stories discussed her personal life and 78% mentioned her family and children. By contrast 8% of stories about male CEOs mentioned their personal lives and none mentioned their families and children (same source).
· A recent study by Cambridge University Press found significant discrepancies in the way Olympic athletes were described in the media, with women more likely to be described as “aged, older, married or unmarried and girls” while men were more likely to be described using terms like “strong, real, great and men.”
· When receiving performance reviews, high achieving women receive three times as much negative feedback as positive feedback; high achieving men receive almost no negative feedback and lots of positive feedback (“The Abrasiveness trap: High-achieving men and women are described differently in reviews,” Fortune, August 26, 2014.
· High-achieving women are more likely to be described as abrasive (same source).
The Crone in me wants to tell women to speak up and call out those subtle, nearly invisible examples that we are “lesser than.” But the experienced CEO says, “Don’t or risk being viewed as petty and difficult and abrasive.” But if we don’t call them out, how do they change? Is broadening awareness enough?
Let me end with a story that I found extremely hopeful that change is possible. Today in the news there was an announcement that the Harvard men’s soccer season was cancelled because of a “scouting report” that made vulgar and sexual comments about members of the women’s team and that this “report” was not limited to a single year or the behavior of a few individuals. Earlier this week members of the women’s team wrote a letter to the Crimson decrying this practice. The University President wrote, “The decision to cancel a season is serious and consequential, and reflects Harvard’s view that both the team’s behavior and the failure to be forthcoming when initially questioned are completely unacceptable, have no place at Harvard and run counter to the mutual respect that is a core value of our community.”
The men’s team is in first place in the Ivy League. It forfeits all remaining games and declines any opportunities for postseason play.
Wow. That is a real consequence! No sarcasm intended! I hope I would feel the same way if my sons played soccer for Harvard. But it is also not lost on me that the current president of Harvard is a woman. The real question will be what happens to the Columbia wrestling team, where a similarly misogynist on-line message platform was discovered. As of November 15, they’ve had their season temporarily suspended.
“Men are from Earth, women are from Earth. Deal with it.” ― George Carlin