Episode 118: A Year for Women?

Show transcript:

Welcome to the Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…workplace harassment is no longer something we’re whispering about. In the wake of the #MeToo movement, women’s voices are getting louder and more confident. So will

2018 be a new dawn for women in the workplace?

 “You know one of the things I’ve heard said is, well, we just need more women in leadership. But just having a woman there doesn’t mean she’s going to be any more deft and skilled in knowing how to deal with a harassment situation.”

“I’m a big fan of all this discomfort men are feeling right now. Any change requires discomfort, and this isn’t a bad thing. I think as women we need to be careful not to care too much that there’s some discomfort among men.”

Coming up…two women on whether 2018 could really be a turning point for women at work.

I met Anne Libby several years ago at an event in New York and we’ve been pen pals ever since. Anne grew up in the Chicago suburbs, and though she’s based in New York she still spends a lot of time in Chicago.

She has her own coaching and consulting business that helps people become better managers.

Which is something Anne never could have imagined when she graduated from the University of Chicago in the ‘80s. She had studied behavioral science. She thought she might become a psychologist or psychiatrist…

“I worked in a lab for a couple of years at the university after college and decided that was not gonna be my jam, and I got a job in banking.”

Something she fell into when someone she’d worked for previously said, why don’t you be my assistant for a while? Before a year was up she’d been moved from Chicago to New York. She spent 9 years with that bank, mostly working on turnaround situations, where a business area needed to be fixed up. With her background in behavioral science it turned out this was a great fit…

“The changes that needed to be made were in people’s behavior, they needed to be managed better. So I got a lot of experience managing people, managing managers, and developing people into people managers as well.”

She’s had her consulting business for about ten years now. She also puts out a monthly newsletter called On Management. I wanted to talk to Anne for this first show of the year because she has spent many years living and thinking about workplace and gender dynamics.

AM-T: “So I saw you for lunch in December, and we talked about this time that we’re in…and I feel with everything that’s come in the wake of the Weinstein allegations and the #MeToo movement, it does feel like a different era to me now. Does it to you?”

“Well, [sigh] I guess what I’d say especially since we had that conversation, I think the word people have hooked on here, reckoning, that is a great word for what’s happening now. The word means to make a calculation, a navigation, it means to identify where you are. We are doing a great job now of identifying where we really are.”

She says the scales are falling from people’s eyes about the sheer extent of harassment in the workplace…

“I’d never thought about the housekeeping staff at hotels possibly thinking they’re in danger while they’re doing their job – so the fact that someone like me who thinks they’re on top of the workplace, right, hadn’t thought about that before is sort of a testament to where we were…”

Her own experience of harassment began early in her career.

“What I didn’t say earlier in my description of leaving the lab was that it was what we’d call today an extremely hostile environment, and it was hostile specifically to women, despite the fact there were many of us there. People made comments about my body, about a whole range of things, there are things I’ve blocked out about that. A woman I used to work for at the time now runs a major lab at a university, let’s just leave it at that. And she’s in her early 60s at this point I believe. And I had a conversation with her a year or so ago and she said you know Anne, I still say something you taught me to say back then. And I was like really? What is it? And she said, ‘Is that my body you’re talking about?’ She runs the place and she’s getting some forms of harassment there. People are talking about her body and she is an esteemed professor in her sixties. So has everything changed? I think if I were to call her up she’d say no, not everything has changed.”

Still Anne says when she quit that lab in the 80s, the phrase ‘hostile work environment’ didn’t exist. Now we all know what that means. Which is a big leap.

“I think changes will be tectonic, we’ve had another movement of a tectonic plate and things are gonna settle out and we’ll say, OK, where are we here? I can guarantee you people are still being harassed in companies today and I think it’s dangerous to think everything has changed.”

AM-T: “I completely agree and I didn’t mean to suggest everything had changed… we’re at the beginning of the new year and I wonder how things will play out this year. When I started this show, I was talking about things that were bubbling under the surface…they weren’t out there in major newspapers and outlets the way they are now. Because of all the attention on this are you hopeful there will be some real shifts in the way workplaces work as soon as this year? Or will it be a slow, cumulative effect over many more years?”

“My prediction is that it is likelier to be slow and cumulative. I think some of the hopeful things that can come from this had actually started to happen even before we became aware of some of these things. I can’t speak to the inside of the company Salesforce.com, but what they did maybe 18 months ago was to go through and do evaluations of people’s salaries on a one-to-one basis. And a lot of women and some men got raises. They are making an effort or were making an effort to have pay parity, and I think that’s something that is critically important.”

Anne says she’s approached the business school where she got her own MBA and said to them, you publish the salaries second-year MBAs are offered…

“Why don’t you break that down by demographic? Why don’t you talk about what people of color are being offered and what women are being offered versus what men and white men are being offered? Now I don’t know if anyone is doing that but that is the kind of action that could get things rolling.

I think if a CEO is determined to have things be different that they can take very concrete steps to make sure people have a safe way of reporting harassment and sorting it out too. Because every situation of harassment, some are thoughtless, and some are targeted abuse, right? You need to have deft and skilled leaders at companies who can sort out what’s a firing offense and what’s a forgivable, coachable offense.”

This is Anne’s main point: leadership and good management are more important now than ever. But the structures that have enabled harassment and bullying to take place – they won’t exactly crumble overnight.

 “Cultures survive because they’re a survival mechanism and they’re very persistent and resilient. And right now misogyny for better or worse is built into organizational cultures. Men and women who are seeing things happen and laughing it off or ignoring it are part of that system, right?”

 She says women are not in a special category just because we’re women…

“One of the things I’ve heard said is, we just need more women in leadership. I don’t think we just need more women in leadership because again, all of us are part of this current environment, right, part of this reckoning at this point, but just having a woman there doesn’t mean she’s going to be any more deft and skilled at dealing with a harassment situation. Especially if she’s gotten there because she’s navigated them in her own way and some of her own way might be not saying anything about it.”

It’s complicated.

In a minute…things people should never do in a workplace environment. And why harassment can be harder to push back against in countries where having a laugh is part of the culture.    

So Anne doesn’t think more women in leadership will mean an automatic decrease in harassment at work. Women have been known to be harassers themselves on occasion.

But at least a lot of women have an understanding of harassment through personal experience.

At the end of the year Anne had a brief exchange on chat with a young man who’d responded to a comment she made about recent news events involving prominent men like Harvey Weinstein and TV anchor Matt Lauer. She used those stories of harassment and assault to compile a list of things you should never do in the workplace. And Anne says this man is a really good guy, but he implied Anne couldn’t really comment about this stuff…

“It was like I didn’t have the moral authority to make those statements because those weren’t my story. And because I wasn’t outing myself and me-too-ing and talking about the hundreds and hundreds of micro and macro harassments that I’ve endured in a 30-year career, that I didn’t have the moral authority to say what should or shouldn’t happen.”

AM-T: “Can you remember what you put on that list, things people should not be doing at work?” 

“Oh yeah, it was sort of flip, I’ve made it a lot less flip, but that you should never be seen in a bathrobe by someone you work with.”

AM-T: “Charlie Rose…”

“Yeah, Harvey Weinstein, those guys have ruined bathrobes for me forever, hotel bathrobes are dead to me! But yes, that you should never suggest to somebody else that having sex with you will be a career move, that you should never be unclothed in the workplace, that you should never take your penis out of your pants at work – and I did state it that boldly. I made a list of ten or fifteen things and then linked back to all of them. I’ve been adding new incidents that have happened and that are well reported to that list. I mean do we have to say these things? Obviously we do, because it’s happening.”

I said to Anne men are always going to be 50 percent of the population. We’re always going to be working together. And most men won’t do any of those things. But where do we go from here with that workplace relationship?

“Well that’s why I’m guardedly hopeful. That’s why I’m pinning a lot of responsibility on people who lead people. Because what you need to do is give people options to do the right thing, right? I think probably 98% of people or more want to do the right thing in any situation; human nature is you don’t want other people to suffer.”

And when she hears about some men being alarmed by this new environment…

“When people say men are afraid I think well, we’ve been afraid for a long time, we’ve been mediating our behavior for a long time. Good, that’s gonna be one good thing about this. But I don’t think fear is the right answer. You shouldn’t be motivated by ‘don’t screw up or you’ll get in trouble,’ as much by, gosh ‘if you see something, say something.’ Which is simple in its notion but it’s difficult in its execution. And that’s the leadership moment we’re at right now. How can you let people safely say something?”

And how can you let people be supported in saying something? How can others intervene if we witness something that seems unsavory? She wishes more companies would allow academics to study them as they try different ways of handling harassment issues. She says the results of a study could inform the wider world about what works and what doesn’t.

“So I mean I think that there’s plenty that can be done, but the first thing that has to happen is that you as the leader of that organization, or the executive team of that organization has to say, this is one of the top three things we’re going to work on this year. And if you’re not doing that then you can expect more of the same.”

So that’s a view from the US, from an expert on management and company culture.

My next guest lives in London.

“I am Nastaran Tavakoli-Far, also known as Nas, I produce a podcast called The Gender Knot and I’m also a journalist, I present programs on the BBC and I was a reporter and producer there for quite a while.”

I wanted to talk to Nas to get a view from someone younger than either Anne or me – she’s 32 and also to get a perspective from the UK. Nas was born in Iran but her parents moved to England when she was two. She speaks fluent Farsi and used to work in that language when she worked for the BBC’s Persian Service.

Nas says she hasn’t experienced harassment at work. But she certainly didn’t feel things were equal for men and women at the BBC.

“I felt part of the reason I did want to work for myself was to do with the gender dynamics at the office, and I’ve heard this from other women entrepreneurs too…a lot is to do with not wanting to be the woman who does a lot of work but not getting enough credit. So I think there is a bit of a tie-in to women wanting to be entrepreneurs, to get away from a lot of the unspoken dynamics of the workplace, you know?”

As for how she and her friends are thinking about the year ahead…

“It’s strange because on one hand there’s a real excitement but there’s a little bit of, I don’t want to say cynicism, but a bit of caution too, I don’t know if that’s a British thing of not getting too excited about anything lest it doesn’t pan out well [laughs] but there’s this feeling of yes, it’s good men and men in power are hearing these conversations, but there is a little bit of skepticism as to how much things are gonna change going forward.”

AM-T: “Well how do you feel? You seem pretty positive in the conversations I’ve heard you have on your podcast.”

“Yeah, I feel pretty positive, but I don’t know if it’s because I’m not inside a big institution daily, and I wonder if that has an effect too, because I’m not surrounded by the institutional structure on a day to day basis. But I do think these things are good long-term, I think what might happen is 2 to 3 years of hard conversations and unpleasant dynamics. But you need to get that out of the way, and I feel it’s like with personal relationships as well, when you need to have those difficult conversations and they’re not nice and stuff isn’t nice for a while, but people need time to process that.

Something that’s interesting that I heard from some of my colleagues is like, certain women pushing for men on their team to reveal their salaries, and that’s been interesting because some of the women are really into that, ‘yeah, let’s be totally open about what we’re earning,’ and others are like, ‘no that’s not gonna help us in the long run because the men are gonna resent us.’ So it’s really interesting because it’s that sense of like, we mustn’t offend men, not because we care about what they think or their feelings, but will we end up suffering as a result of this? So there’s a lot of questions about how open should we be about pushing for these changes. Is it gonna just be a backlash that will end up hurting us more?”

Some of you will know about the Carrie Gracie story – Gracie was until recently the BBC’s China editor, living in and reporting from China. She quit her post after finding out two male foreign editors were paid far more than she was, and after the BBC refused to take action to equalize the salaries. She wrote a dignified letter about all this which I’ll link you to, it is well worth reading. And her action has spurred more conversations in the UK and especially in journalism about women’s unequal status as employees, and how little we know about what our peers are earning. But Nas says in an industry like journalism, where a lot of outlets are laying people off…

“There’s also some worry that if we all have to reveal our pay, what is unlikely is that people’s pay will be reduced. What is more likely is some people will be axed if managers feel they have to raise everyone’s pay to the same level. So it’s like, would I rather get a pay rise or risk actually being axed?”

I’m planning an upcoming show on women and pay so I will get into all this stuff more deeply then.

Nas thinks British women’s response to the explosion of stories about workplace harassment has been a bit more subdued than in the US. She says women there still speak less openly about bad work experiences of all kinds, though that is changing.

“I also think the nature of harassment is different as well. Just from my small time in the US, people are more openly aggressive so it’s more obvious, I guess that’s the famous difference between London and New York, I guess – New York is really aggressive and London is aggressive in more subdued or passive way…something that I think is quite a big deal in the UK is the boys’ club thing, men kind of giving jobs to one another, looking out for one another, that’s not harassment but it is a kind of discrimination that’s hard to call out because it’s so ingrained.”

AM-T: “Yes, I hear you on the boys’ club thing…and the different ways in which men use language at work, about women and around women. One of the things I think about the UK and Australia is there’s a jokey culture, ‘we’re having a laugh,’ you need to have a sense of humour and everyone is expected to have a sense of humour. And I miss the British sense of humour, I’ve become more guarded about what I say living here over the years, and it’s happened to me because I’ve lived here so long. But one of the things about Brits and Australians is that jokiness, which sometimes…”

“Is an excuse to hide? No, definitely. It’s harder to call things out here because it’s much more subtle. You know when we talk about lad culture in the UK and bro culture in the US? We think of those two types of men as being equivalents of eachother with cultural nuances. And the whole lad thing, it is a funny thing, it’s a jokey thing, you’re being silly, you’re poking fun, and yet it’s hard to be offended about that. ‘Can’t you take a joke, come on, it was just funny,’ so it’s really difficult to speak up about that, but yeah, it is used to cover up a lot of hostile sentiment.”

So what of that hostile sentiment? Whether it’s male commentators in some of the British papers or just online comments you read under articles about women in the workplace, some men clearly feel uncomfortable in a world where women’s voices are getting stronger…

“I feel like yeah, it is going to take a long time to change. But the thing is I’m a big fan of all this discomfort men are feeling right now. Any change requires discomfort, and this isn’t a bad thing. I think as women we need to be careful not to care too much that there’s some discomfort among men. In many cultures it’s the case, where women are caretakers, we try not to hurt people, which is why women take a lot of bad behavior, too, we don’t want to hurt someone’s feelings by calling it out. I feel like right now a lot of men are feeling discomfort. On some level I find some of the conversations where men feel discomfort quite manipulative, because it’s a way of trying to guilt-trip women into not saying anything, and I think women need to not care if people are getting their feelings hurt. This needs to happen.”

She had a conversation with her male co-host on The Gender Knot recently and she talked about people needing to feel pain to change and grow. He was not so sure.

I wondered if leaders of British companies think of themselves as part of the reckoning. Will they start to forge some changes to company culture? Nas seemed skeptical.

“I wonder if it’s a case of women doing their own thing a little bit. I’m already seeing this, women wanting to work with or for women. In a way it might be quite a good time for women leaders or women in positions of power, because I get the feeling of…trying to wait for men to change and especially in a culture when people don’t really want to look at it, I have a feeling you’re gonna get more women wanting to work for other women. Or powerful women who have money setting up things that are friendlier to women. I get a feeling women might just try and do it on their own.”

What do you think? Has the #MeToo movement got you thinking differently about your career, and who you want to work with? And if you’re a freelancer or run your own business I’m curious to know whether you’ve escaped some of the seemier sides of office life, or not necessarily. You can respond on Facebook, email me or send me a voice memo from your phone.

One thing I will say that I think is a very positive sign in my industry is groups of women who have come together to say look, if you as a female journalist or radio reporter experience bullying or harassment, come to us, tell us about it – because we as a group have some influence with these companies you’re working for either on staff or as a freelancer. That kind of thing seems hugely positive to me and a real step forward.

Thanks to Nas and Anne Libby for being my guests on this show. You will find links to their work under this episode at TheBroadExperience.com.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. If you are not already a subscriber please become one – you can find the show in places like Apple Podcasts, or RadioPublic.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening. See you next time.