Blog Post

Changing a Culture of Sexual Harassment

By Subha Barry
January 23, 2018

We can be deluded into thinking this is a recent pattern. It is not. We can consider Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly. We can think of Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, and Garrison Keillor. We must, however, be clear: This is not an entertainment-/media-industry issue. This is a workplace issue, and is relevant wherever people work and a power dynamic is in play, where a male-dominated culture can be a sense of immunity from being found out—or believed if called out.

As women, we’ve known that childbearing and childrearing are prominent “derailers” for our ambitions and careers. We’ve also understood the negative impact of not getting male allyship in early and mid-career. Sexual harassment, while widely experienced, has been kept undercover; the isolation of women’s experiences—and their unwillingness or inability to speak openly about them—kept this third rail from being exposed. We must not overlook the courage required for women to speak out: fear of loss of job, being denied advancement opportunities, being attacked professionally or by physical threat. With the #metoo campaign, the sheer volume of women now speaking out about their experiences of being sexually bullied and harassed by male colleagues and powerful senior men makes it clear that many women’s careers have been stunted as a result. Think of what might have been?

I began my career as a commodities trader, and all of my aspirations required that I be a pioneer. Both the culture and the roles that involved advancement simply did not have a history of people who fit my profile: woman trader, person of color, immigrant, married and having a child while on the job, and—the ultimate surprise—a top producer. While sexist and crude jokes ruled the day, they were never directed toward me, at least not to my face. I didn’t appreciate how lucky I had been starting in a role that measured you so objectively, where all that really mattered was your trading prowess. When you were a rookie and at the base of the power hierarchy, you got picked on unrelentingly; it didn’t matter whether you were male or female, citizen or immigrant, young or old.

It wasn’t till I became a wealth adviser that I saw the depth and breadth of the misogyny. The sexism wasn’t restricted to dirty jokes. The women in the office, mostly young administrative and operations assistants, were subjected to merciless harassment. Once again, as one of the few like me, I was at the base of the power hierarchy, determined to climb up and have the power to change things. It took me six years to break into the top ranks. In that time, my deepest regrets were about remaining silent to the harassment and abuse directed toward the more junior female administrative staff. My behavior was complicit; I was building my own political capital and was unwilling to spend any of it on challenging the establishment.

Sadly, that blind eye is as ubiquitous today as it was then among women trying to move up the ranks. Perhaps one outcome of our changing climate is that not only are women finding their voice when subjected to bad behavior, but senior women might also find our voices to play a more active, responsible role in ensuring workplace fairness. As peers of some of these men, it will be harder for us to hide from our responsibility. The young women will, and should, be able to look to us for help; and the senior management and shareholders might expect, if not demand, that we play a more active role in protecting the brand from predatory behavior.

We did not just wake up to a culture of abusive behavior. It has existed for generations, but we find ourselves in a unique place where a tidal wave of women is rising up to speak out against powerful men who are physical or emotional abusers, sexual bullies, and predators. It’s clearly the right time to speak out against it. Let us call it out when we see it; let us change cultures that allow it; and let us speak about it with the men in our lives—our grandfathers, fathers, brothers, husbands, sons, grandsons, friends, and colleagues. We talk about building strong, courageous, and resilient daughters; let us teach the men in our lives, especially our sons, how we want them to treat the women in their lives. From their initial interactions with girls, let us let them know what accountability is in the treatment of women. Throughout their lives, let them be guided by the thought, “If I did or said this, what would my mother say?” Then and only then can we count on enduring change.

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About the Author

Subha V. Barry
Subha Barry