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Building a Gender-Inclusive Workplace

NEW YORK – The wave of high-profile sexual harassment cases that began with revelations from Hollywood is having a profound impact on far less glamorous work environments. Just as major film studios have been forced to take action against abuse, a similar revolution – powered by the #MeToo movement of women speaking out – is sweeping workplaces everywhere.

opIt has been terrible to learn of the abuse that women suffered at the hands of powerful men like Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and Al Franken. But it is also deeply encouraging to see the corporate world take this issue seriously, by attempting to create a “shared future” for their female employees. The collective response to the #MeToo movement could mark a turning point in the way employers think about sexual harassment and other issues involving gender – like pay and power.

But the workplace revolution is far from over. New strategies are needed to encourage healthy interactions among employees. When handled properly, gender equality promotes business output and productivity, whereas sexual discrimination, if ignored, can destroy an office culture – and so much more.

Companies have traditionally taken a box-ticking approach to addressing harassment, using written policies and trainings in a feeble bid to encourage respect. But this top-down approach has proven ineffective, as scandals at Uber and other tech firms have demonstrated. If workplace abuse is to be curtailed, business leaders and C-Suite executives need a fresh approach.

The first priority is to achieve gender balance at the top. Diversity in leadership encourages employee cooperation and leads to healthier organizations. This is not a new idea; a 2016 study published in the Harvard Business Review found that companies with more high-level female executives generate higher profits. Other studies have shown that women perform better under stress, often making smarter decisions. But, despite the obvious benefits that women bring, they remain under-represented in senior leadership positions at companies around the world.

Change is needed in the digital workplace as well. Predators may lurk around the water cooler, but they are also active in online communities, chat rooms, and forums. Concerns raised by the #MeToo movement spread virally on social media within hours, and similar anger could engulf an organization at any time. Companies must therefore place a premium on promoting online decorum, and take seriously any comments and concerns expressed by their employees. Most companies already monitor social media for reputational risks and customer satisfaction; they should do the same to protect their staff.

Finally, companies must be responsive to the concerns of their youngest employees, who will inherit the office of the future. With more millennials entering the workforce and demanding greater equality, the youngest employees already have a stronger voice at work than previous generations. A recent Boston Consulting Group study found that young male employees are often more open-minded than their superiors on issues like family leave and diversity, suggesting that true leadership on gender equality may actually come from a company’s youngest staff members.

Moreover, researchers at Rutgers University have shown that more than 50% of millennials would consider a pay cut if it meant working for a company that shared their values, while the Society for Human Resource Management notes that 94% of young workers want to use their skills to benefit a good cause. Rather than resist these trends, companies should look to harness the benevolence of their youngest talent.

To build a more inclusive workplace, management must craft narratives that support the changes their employees are demanding. Most important, employees need role models. The willingness of celebrities like Salma Hayek, Rose McGowan, and Reese Witherspoon to share their stories of sexual harassment empowered women from many walks of life to speak out, too. Changing workplace culture will demand similarly strong leadership.

That shift is on the horizon, and I am inspired by the women and men who are calling on future generations to work together more equitably. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the complexity of these issues, but if managers and employees can commit to building purpose-driven and inclusive work environments, change is inevitable.

The women of Hollywood may have initiated what has become a global call for equality at work, but the workplace revolution is no less significant for those of us who walk on less colorful carpets.

Kathy Bloomgarden is CEO of Ruder Finn.

By Kathy Bloomgarden

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