How Power Shifts and Societies Flourish

Something important is happening.

As the drip-drip of sexual harassment revelations continue to surface on Hollywood sets, political statehouses and corporate boardrooms around the country, women are slowly making a claim on the power that they were always endowed with.

The sexual harassment epidemic is not merely a blip in the news cycle.  At least it needn’t be.  Rather, it should be viewed as a moment when America came to grips with a sin that has endured for too long.   The inequality of power among genders in the workplace.  And the unconscious and persistent objectification of women in society.

In June 2017, Fortune Magazine ran a piece on female CEO’s in the Fortune 500.  They proclaimed that the number of female CEO’s had increased by a whopping 50%.  However, read a little farther and you realize that a 50% increase catapulted the total number from 21 to 32, with women representing a mere 6.4% of Fortune 500 CEO positions.  They also hold only 10.6% of corporate board seats in Fortune 500 companies.  If women comprise 50.8% of the total U.S population, how is it that on these two small measures of corporate power that they are so underrepresented?

Conscious or unconscious, we continue to promote men over women.  We continue to create caricatures of men as decisive, hard-edged leaders.  Men are the John Wayne’s of the boardroom.  Women play support roles.

While women are making strides, far too often their leadership ascendancy happens in corporate human resources departments or within professional sectors that are traditionally dominated by women such as education.  We do not see them on top in the financial services sector or in Silicon Valley.   Why?

The problem is that when women are consciously or unconsciously viewed as ill-suited for leadership, an unspoken power is exerted by men as we make claim to the ultimate decision making process.  We make a claim on authority and assume that women should follow.  It is this authority and sense of professional leverage that we exploit to sexually harass.

Of course, the majority of men in leadership positions have never sexually harassed a woman.  However, the overwhelming majority of sexual harassment in the workplace is perpetrated by men.  And the amount of sexual harassment that actually takes place is almost certainly higher than is officially reported.

It is men that need to be at the front of the picket line demanding change.  We must resist convenient temptations to brush off these developments as acts committed by a few “bad apples”. Those who wield power can do the most to ensure its appropriate diffusion.

At a time when its become clear that men have been using our power advantage in the workplace to fulfill our deviant pleasures, will we live up to this moment in history?

In the wake of these revelations, men need to be feel palpable discomfort.  It is this discomfort that allows us to step outside ourselves and see the world as it truly is.  And when men can look down on the landscape of gender power distribution with true objectivity, we can then proceed to the business of leading the necessary change.

We must also not let our men and boys off the hook with the excuse of power in and of itself.  Imagine for a moment a hypothetical world in which roles were reversed.  Women wielded more power in the workplace than men.  Do we really believe that women would be sexually harassing men in the same way?  Worse, that they would engage in some of the grotesque sexual acts in front of women against their will?  I would surmise that the answer is no.   Which therefore leads us to a discussion on how we are raising our boys.

What is it in the psyche of boys and men that creates a yearning for deviance, dominance, and the expression of unfettered power? What is it about our upbringings that results in us living out these immoral and illegal acts?  Most importantly, how do we recognize the prevalence of this behavior at an early age and teach our boys to grow up to be men of character and honor?

We must also recognize the subtle but insidious objectification of women in society.  Often its symbolic.  But symbols matter and they hold sway in our subconscious minds.

As an example, we persist in demanding female cheerleaders at NFL football games.  While seen by some as harmless and a long tradition in football, they serve as a sort of eye-candy for men as opposed to gender agnostic leaders of cheers.  As if we needed a group of 10 humans to lead cheers in a stadium of 60,000 fans!

The placement of beautiful women on the sidelines for fans to gawk at or as sexual objects in movies to be viewed, sends a signal that women are to be enjoyed for their good looks and sexuality.  This carries through to other parts of our culture including the workplace.  We hold onto unconscious views of women as comprising a certain role in our societies.  One in our cultural hierarchy that often places them as objects for men to be enjoyed.  Not as leaders of men (and women).  That must change.

So what can we do to take advantage of the tragic developments of the last year around sexual harassment?  We can start by recognizing that this is a watershed moment in U.S. history.  That while the women’s suffrage movement and the advancements that have followed constitute an important leap forward in women’s rights, there is considerable work to be done.  I’ve highlighted a few below.

  • Re-evaluate the way we raise our boys with a keen sensitivity to the conception of masculinity
  • Deliberately remove symbols of female objectification from popular culture
  • Create special opportunities for women to hold positions of power in the workplace.  Quotas are necessary.   The bias toward placing men in power does not allow a purely merit based system to deliver the proper distribution of men and women in leadership positions.
  • Publicize validated cases of men harassing women in the workplace as a deterrent.  These offenses cannot be viewed as minor, cost of doing business activities.  The men committing these acts need to be ostracized for these acts so that they are seen as morally reprehensible and result in serious negative consequences.

When power shifts, our society has the potential to realize greater flourishing.  When men and women participate in society as equals, society benefits from the equal distribution of viewpoints and the diversity of human attributes.  Let us use this small development in the arc of history to bend it toward greater societal flourishing.