I have crossed a threshold, had a watershed moment, reached the end of my rope. #Really!
I don’t know whether it was the Dec. 18th article in The Globe and Mail noting that 94 percent of Canadian executives surveyed said that sexual harassment was not an issue in their workplace, or it was the sad news about Soulpepper Theatre Company and its artistic director, Albert Schultz. Or was it the Golden Globe Awards, with everyone wearing black (rightly so) and the inclusion of human rights lawyers and other equity experts? It doesn’t matter. The Issue is everywhere.
But is The Issue just sexual harassment? We all know that it goes far beyond that. The Gandalf Group – whose C-Suite Survey was featured in the Globe – also asked whether gender discrimination was a problem. Only 17 percent of leaders (5% of whom were men) surveyed thought it was a problem in their organizations, although 48 percent thought it was an issue in their sectors. Really? So, all this gender discrimination is happening elsewhere?
We know that it’s happening everywhere, all the time, every day.
As I think back on what has been a pretty interesting career, so far, of ~40 years, I don’t feel nearly as hurt or frustrated by the sexual predations that I experienced as I do by gender discrimination. Like almost every woman in business, I’ve had my share of distasteful, unwanted things happen. I managed to extricate myself from these for the most part; in one situation, however, I decided to leave an organization when it was clear that my unwillingness to “participate” deeply angered my boss.
As dangerous as sexual harassment in the workplace is, gender discrimination is arguably as dangerous and more pervasive. Gender discrimination is insidious and deeply embedded in many business cultures: mindsets and behaviors. Like any type of discrimination, gender discrimination is driven by the wish to exploit and maintain control of those who might otherwise unseat us.
What does gender discrimination look like?
Gender discrimination is most obvious in how worth is measured in the corporate world: namely salaries and other compensation. Most recently, it reared its ugly head at the BBC, where the top male earner receives more than four times the compensation of the highest earning woman.
During my career, I saw payroll and bonus data proving that I and my female partner colleagues in a global firm received 25 to 30 percent less than our male colleagues. At another firm, I was told by a credible source that the women executives got smaller bonuses and about 12 percent less in salary than our male colleagues. I suspect that the odds are higher that a woman will be exploited financially in the workplace rather than be subject to sexual harassment there.
Gender discrimination is also about a myriad of subtle day-to-day occurrences. It is about being interrupted in meetings; having good ideas and suggestions ignored until the guy comes up with it 10 minutes later; being left out of key meetings and wondering “what just happened?” Just before the holidays, I had dinner with a senior female executive who mentioned that one of these things happened to her that very day. I asked what she did about it and her response: “Nothing.” And that is the problem: we don’t do anything because these daily occurrences seem so insignificant. But they aren’t. They add up, create a sense of frustration, hurt and anger. We are belittled, we aren’t heard, and we get passed over.
In my last organization, a large global consulting firm replete with outstanding men, for the most part, I experienced countless of those “small” things daily. It got to the point where I reacted: I called out people who interrupted me, calmly but forcefully. When someone appropriated one of my ideas without acknowledging it, I said something. When a young partner scolded me for daring to disagree with a client, I disagreed with him, rather directly.
When gender discrimination arises, we must call it by name and speak up, like the women who participate in the #MeToo conversation and the men and women who participate in #TimesUp.
But we need to go further: we need to think about transforming business culture – people’s mindsets and behaviour – in a way that reflects values of inclusion, fairness, trust and transparency. We must cultivate new ways of behaving that further the work of men and women alike, to create a culture that promotes respect, learning and openness. An ideal start would have executives look at themselves and their teams objectively to determine what is going on within their organizations. Only after confronting reality is it possible to blaze a trail forward.
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