by Gael O’Brien

Woman_Elevator_Feature_iStock_000015894757XSmallSo how do we achieve a better working world that is more inclusive and gender equal? The question is inspired by the International Women’s Day 2017 call to action. However, the answer is ultimately connected to how respect shows up in a company’s culture: whether employees are supported or impeded in doing their best work.

Culture has a particular impact on how women see themselves and their leadership potential.  So when predatory sexual behavior comes out of the shadows of cultures that tolerate it and into recent media headlines, it’s a painful reminder that without the cornerstones of respect and safety – integral to leadership responsibility – progress toward a better working world will be two steps forward and five back.

A few current examples:

Leaders of companies in any industry might well ask while reading the April 2017 article “Why is Silicon Valley So Awful To Women?”  if any of the dozens of examples described of gender bias, sexual advances/assaults and feeling disrespected at work might also be happening to female employees in their own company culture.

– J. Walter Thompson’s  former global CEO resigning amid hostile work environment charges and Uber’s CEO protecting a high producer over employees’ sexual harassment complaints  reflect a Mad Men mentality of over 50 years ago. Seriously? These smart, hip, edgy companies have learned nothing from the past?

On the heels of Fox News parting ways with former chairman Roger Ailes over a sexual harassment scandal, culture issues continue: it’s currently dealing with the loss of about 60 advertisers over harassment claims against host Bill O’Reilly.

Zero Incidents, Respect and Reinforcing the Message

“Zero tolerance,” the usual script in rebounding from some failure of policies is often hollow. However, there are three things leaders can take away from how Paul H. O’Neill changed Alcoa’s culture as chairman and CEO that are applicable to how leaders can successfully fend off the insidious encroachment of sexual harassment in a work culture. They are: having the expectation of zero incidents, emphasis on respect, and reinforcing the message. I interviewed former U.S. Treasury Secretary O’Neill in 2008 because I wanted to know more about how he’d shaped his leadership and impact on culture.

He told me he brought a list of 15 items outlining his agenda with him on his first day at Alcoa in 1987.  In spite of being a finance guy under the gun to turn the company around, his top three items were safety, quality and “respect for each individual.” Although Alcoa’s safety figures were above industry average, he told his team he expected zero incidents because he believed no employee should ever be hurt at work. Some board members were uncomfortable with that focus, he said; some team members argued Alcoa couldn’t afford to be perfectly safe – it was unrealistic, as human beings make mistakes. Nonetheless, O’Neill regularly conveyed his expectation of zero incidents throughout the company. He reinforced it with a system of transparency, accountability and lessons learned when issues occurred (with remedies) within 24 hours to all the key players globally. While it made legal counsel nervous, he said, the process successfully conveyed his priority, as did the fact that every meeting at Alcoa started with a brief update on worker safety. Alcoa went from 1.86 lost work days to injury per 100 workers in 1987 to 0.2 in 2000 when he left; and 12 years later the rate continued to fall to 0.125.

Fostering a climate of respect at Alcoa was a precondition of O’Neill’s leadership. He told me his ideal was to create the kind of organization where every employee (all genders, all job descriptions) could say yes to three propositions each day:

  • I am treated with dignity and respect every day by everyone I encounter.
  • I am given the things I need – education, training, encouragement – so I can make a contribution that gives meaning to my life.
  • People whom I respect recognize me for what I do.

His leadership made clear what respect looked like and blended “soft skills” with financial acumen.  Actions reinforced his message. He told a story about learning his first week that a country club Alcoa operated with 11 other companies didn’t admit minorities or women. He called the club and the other company leaders to say that Alcoa would have to drop its support and membership if the rules weren’t changed. Within two weeks the club changed its admission policies.

Inappropriate sexual behavior doesn’t have the same kind of measurement as worker safety. Nonetheless, if leaders reinforced their insistence on zero incidents and the importance of respect in daily interactions, consider how that would impact the culture. In a recent article “Why Can’t We Stop Sexual Harassment at Work” addressing the limits of compliance training, the need for more civility, dignity and respect in the workplace was urged. However, as “respect” can mean different things to different people, leaders need to be clear what they mean, what they expect to see and then model it themselves: remembering that “what you tolerate, you promote.”

Going Forward

Becoming more explicit activists for workplace respect and having expectations of zero incidents of inappropriate workplace sexual behavior will further other progress being made to advance gender equity. For example, where leaders have made pay equity a priority, the gap is closing. CEO Marc Benioff announced the pay gap is closed at In 2016, over 100 companies signed the White House Equal Pay Pledge. A  relatively new activist hedge fund is taking on gender diversity on boards. And, the research from 22,000 publicly traded companies in 91 countries makes clear that companies having women in top leadership roles correlates with increased profits

Progress is stymied by the underrepresentation of women promoted to manager as well as being supported for careers in line roles, rather than staff, to fuel the CEO pipeline. Fortune 500 boardroom diversity gains are slight in the last six years, from 12.8 percent to 14.4 percent in 2016.

In an email exchange, I asked Newcomb College Institute Executive Director Sally J. Kenney what will help escalate closing the gender gap in work environments.

“Now, more than ever,” she replied, “women must quiet the noise that says they are pussies to be grabbed and listen to the voice that says, “You belong, you have work to do, they don’t know the truth about you.” Kenney, who holds a Newcomb College Endowed Chair and is Professor of Political Science, continued: “We owe it to ourselves, each other, the planet, and the future not to abdicate leadership without a fight. Remember, it’s not the size of the woman in the fight it’s the size of the fight in the woman.”

Gael O'Brien_2012_CropGael O’Brien, a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, is an executive coach and presenter focused on building leadership, trust, and reputation. She publishes The Week in Ethics.

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