Thom Dennis urges men to be better allies to women facing sexism in the workplace
As Lucy Easthope, in her book When the Dust Settles reminds us, during the first lockdown, the calls to abuse charities and domestic helplines went eerily quiet. But on the day the lockdown was lifted, the calls came at five times their normal volume – it was the first chance some callers had had to escape.
We live in a world which is largely dominated by male design and proclivity, and for many they see no need to change things – all’s well from their point of view. And yet there is also a rising movement coming from men who want to be stronger allies of women. They understand that because they have so many in-built advantages, nothing really will change until their system does, and it’s for them to do this. Their difficulty is they don’t know how to change.
The mindset of sexual violence starts in our upbringing, at schools, with our friends, through our language and in our early behaviour. We need to increase awareness around the links between small acts of sexism and how they develop into misogyny by creating a new culture where men actively want women to feel safe to live their lives without fear.
We need to increase awareness around the links between small acts of sexism and how they develop into misogyny
Many women argue that because they have children they are seen as less likely to be putting their all into their work and so they must work harder to prove themselves. Men tend to be promoted because they have potential whereas women are promoted because of what they have achieved.
A 2020 Sexual Harassment Survey from the Government Equalities Office showed that 63% of those who experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the previous 12 months reported the perpetrator was a man, and 22% reported it was a woman. Yet only 15% formally reported their experience. It is likely that employers are underestimating the amount of harassment taking place.
How can we make our female colleagues feel safer?
Don’t be complicit, intervene. Leaders that let high-fliers off the hook for sexist behaviour are profiting from this abuse. Small acts such as wolf whistles, gendered or sexist language are unacceptable. Men need to be clear that they don’t support things like microaggressions, even if coming from friends or colleagues. If men don’t challenge this behaviour, they condone it. Good men who stand back and do nothing are complicit and are supporting the fact that most women are consistently made to feel afraid of men. Many men tell me that they want to have the tools to speak up and handle the situation well but are unsure what to say. The answer is find out more – there are specific courses for this – and in the meantime do your best, be open to making a mistake and feedback, and most importantly, learning from the mistake. Doing nothing is not the answer.
Encourage men to be allies. Men need to be allies to women, to talk about issues, to really listen to them, and even accept their experience even if they can’t quite understand the impact of what they do. Just because it doesn’t compute for a man, doesn’t make the woman’s experience any less real.
Be a good leader and role-model. Employees naturally follow by example, so ensure your leaders adopt the attitude of a zero-sexist. The root of a lot of male violence stems from the absence of good male role-models; this is a societal issue, but all adult men have a responsibility to own their impact. If you haven’t already, take the Project Implicit bias test, and learn about yourself, and then attend a leadership training that contains this level of introspection.
Have a clear sexual harassment policy and make it known. Every employee must be aware of and understand there is a clear code of conduct and a sexual harassment policy which will be actioned quickly and decisively should there be any infringements. This must be actively lived by the most senior leaders in the organisation. Never assume that low take up of reporting procedures means there is no problem.
Prevention workshops. Provide compulsory training for how to spot sexual harassment, how best to deal with it, and how to support those affected by it. Anything compulsory will elicit resistance, so such sessions must be run professionally and with sensitivity.
Create an environment where everyone is comfortable to speak up. Most women do not report harassment. They fear the consequences that speaking up could have on their job and their wellbeing. Encouraging dialogue and whistleblowing and having general and frequent discussions on sexual harassment will encourage everyone to speak up.
Thom Dennis is CEO at Serenity in Leadership