It’s been more than six months since my last blogpost, due mostly to the pressures of work. However, the gentle pressure from readers has been needling me for several weeks. My biggest problem now is what to write about first, with so much going on in the world since I last commented – the Trump effect (fact vs. fiction), the North Korean nuclear threat, slave auctions in Libya, or the terrorism that seems to be threatening our way of life?
Perhaps closest to my heart, is the issue of sexual harassment by powerful men in entertainment, business and politics. The swift fall of high-profile, respected figures has been astonishing, as women have queued up to get their revenge on the men who have abused their influence and privilege. My response to the litany of accusations, denials and confessions has been a personal one, leading to introspection and self-analysis.
I believe that any man in leadership or in a position of influence, due to wealth, authority or celebrity, should think carefully about how he interacts with women in business and professional circumstances. Like racism, sexism is easy to characterise in extreme terms such as rape, violence and victimisation, led by hateful protagonists like Harvey Weinstein. However, extreme behaviour masks the more subtle, routine gestures and comments made by men in the workplace every single day. These acts may be wilful abuses of power, intended to embarrass or intimidate, but most are just crude, clumsy or thoughtless attempts at unwanted proposals or seduction.
The statistics from a range of surveys and reports suggest a startling picture for women at work. The numbers vary from country to country, with most studies having been done in the US, UK and Europe, but the pattern is clear. 15-20% of women have experienced sexual harassment at work, rising to 50-65% in women under 25 years old. In one US study, more than 75% of women who spoke up had to face retaliation and alienation from bosses or colleagues. And here’s the kicker – up to 95% of the perpetrators tend to go unpunished. Is it any wonder that women have remained quiet for so many years?
As men, here’s the question we have to ask ourselves: ‘Have I played a part, however unwittingly, in making female colleagues or subordinates feel harassed or intimidated, or helped to create an environment where they would feel uncomfortable reporting such behaviour?’
To find the answer, I retraced my steps as far back as my first management role 30 years ago, when I led a small advertising sales team with a London publisher. Within weeks of taking over, I had the only all-female team in the company, mostly due to staff turnover. That’s when the snide comments from male colleagues started – everything from the perceived inability of women to survive the tough world of media sales, to the things I was supposedly doing to maintain an all-female team (said with a nod and a wink). All this did was make me more determined to ensure that these women succeeded – by training, mentoring and encouraging them. Later, when the team eventually broke up, I was teased by one team member about how oblivious I had been to the flirting of some of her colleagues.
I doubt that I have been perfect but that has been my deliberate pattern – keep it professional, even when subordinates make it clear that advances would be welcome. My reasons have always been simple:
- How do I discipline an employee I’m involved with, without risking personal backlash?
- How do I reward or promote such an employee, without appearing to be biased, and how can she be sure that she deserves it?
However, ‘simple’ does not necessarily mean ‘easy’. Once, I had this amazing PA who made my life so easy. She organised my diary, my travel and my life, while making great suggestions to improve our department. I knew she was good when the chairman playfully suggested that we swap PAs. As if that wasn’t enough, she was tall, slim and beautiful. My principles held firm, but they were tested when she would ask my opinion on photos she posed for, in lingerie, during weekend photo shoots.
As I search my memory to recollect any wrong-doing on my part, I wonder what may have kept me from typical male fallibility, which tends to be reinforced by environmental pressures – at home, at school and in various social settings. I’m sure it wasn’t at the boys’ school I attended, which had quite a macho culture, or social settings I encountered while growing up in Jamaica or as a young adult in London. So, where did it come from? I can say, quite confidently, that it had almost nothing to do with me and everything to do with an amazing group of women.
Any redeeming features I possess, as a man, can be traced to the women in my family that I grew up observing and learning from. Without realising it, they have shaped my attitude to women, in ways that are more obvious to me now than ever before. As a child, I watched as my Aunt Maxine brought home her first, brand-new car at a time when very few women even drove. Her sister, Leonie, now late, headed to the Bahamas, then Canada, on her own, in search of opportunities as a language teacher and fashion designer. My sister, Novlette, raised two children and married her childhood sweetheart, yet was brave enough to walk away, happier and more prosperous. My cousins Georgia, Patricia and Barbara, forged successful careers as a dentist, physiotherapist and doctor, respectively. In each of these women, there was a sense of independence and self-determination that I came to take for granted.
What they did, without me realising, was to instil a belief in me that women can shape their lives without male interference and with or without male support. I must have taken that conviction into the workplace because I’ve always felt most comfortable working with female colleagues, regardless of their position in the corporate hierarchy. As an employer, I’ve been just as likely to hire women at managerial level, as in support roles.
Most men are not as fortunate as I have been. We tend to be raised in male-dominated homes or environments, where women are marginalised and sexist behaviour is tolerated or even celebrated. We are socialised around ‘locker-room talk’ (to paraphrase Trump) with attitudes to match. Women’s inferiority is reinforced in books, movies and television. Some of us never really grow up, or we come of age with huge insecurities, rooted in the fear of rejection. Later, if we succeed in careers or business, we use the power we have at work to feed these insecurities and boost our fragile egos. Men thrive on feeling powerful and sometimes the easiest way to create that feeing is to dominate others.
It hasn’t escaped my notice that, here in Nigeria, there has been no #metoo campaign and no outpouring of accusations against powerful men. In a society where the relationship between sex and power is as pronounced as I’ve seen anywhere, it says much about where the balance of power lies. Here, women are routinely victimised in the workplace, especially in the thousands of SMEs that dominate the business landscape, and yet, their silence is deafening.
I’m genuinely happy that women are now speaking up – not because some men are losing their businesses or careers – but because they are forcing us to take stock of the anxiety and suffering we have caused over so many years. Trump and Judge Moore aside, it is heartening to see many of the accused men apologising and taking responsibility for their actions. Rather than take comfort that we are not as bad as these disgraced celebrities, men should use this opportunity to examine our attitudes to female colleagues, especially if they are subordinate or dependent on our decisions for their livelihood.
We’re only men, so we will remain imperfect, but we can do much better. No one should be going to work or an interview with you, fearful of what you may say or do that will affect their self-esteem or their future.
“Self respect by definition is a confidence and pride in knowing that your behaviour is both honorable and dignified. When you harass or vilify someone, you not only disrespect them, but yourself also. Respect yourself by respecting others.”
~ Miya Yamanouchi