Is Sexual Harassment Inevitable? What Do You Think?

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Why you should care

Because Harvey Weinstein is not exceptional.

Join us for Third Rail With OZY, a new TV show presented by OZY and WGBH, where we debate provocative hot topics with experts and celebrities every Friday night. The subject of this week’s show: “Is Sexual Harassment Inevitable in the Workplace?” Tune in Friday at 8:30 p.m. ET on PBS, or online, and be sure to weigh in on social media (#ThirdRailPBS) and/or email us at thirdrail@ozy.com with your take!

Missed the previous episodes? Catch up here!

Another month, another sexual harassment allegation from a famous face or leveled at a well-known company. While today it’s movie producer Harvey Weinstein, he’s just the latest in a long list of celebrities who have been linked to such allegations.

Casey Affleck. Roger Ailes. Bill O’Reilly. Bill Cosby. John Travolta. R Kelly. Isiah Thomas. President Bill Clinton. President Donald J. Trump.

And these are just the names we know. When women are asked about unwanted sexual attention or sexual coercion, the reported harassment rate is approximately, and shockingly, 40 percent, research shows. Nearly half of all American women feel they’ve been sexually compromised or suffered unwanted sexual attention at work.

So are these famous men really just a bunch of bad apples? Or is sexual harassment depressingly inevitable in a world where male-dominated business cultures of ruthless individualism and unchecked power dominate everything from politics to art to business? “Many organizations have woven sexual harassment into the culture. For these organizations, eliminating sexual harassment requires a fundamental change,” says Debbie Dougherty, a communications professor at the University of Missouri and a leading expert on the subject. Indeed, with last month’s spate of allegations in Silicon Valley, it wasn’t so much about one or two rogue misogynists (though there were definitely a few of those) as it was about company- and industry-wide cultures that facilitated or even encouraged their actions, whether at Uber, SoFi or 500 Startups.

To be sure, this is not just about men — we should also have included Britney Spears in our list of celebs above. “Sexual harassment is an equal function of power and gender,” says Jennifer Jordan, professor of leadership and organizational behavior at IMD business school. Nevertheless, “machismo” organizational cultures that lack “an environment of respect” are prone to issues, she says.

So who’s to blame — and what can be done about it? Individual perpetrators must be held to account (when rich perpetrators cough up a few grand in an out-of-court settlement, is that really enough?), but if it’s a broader culture that allows these bad apples to rot, then “CEOs should shoulder some of the blame” too, says Dougherty. To create truly inclusive corporations and even (yes, we’ll say it) safe spaces, companies have to go beyond just putting more women in senior positions, and instead “change the way that organizational members talk,” Dougherty continues.

So whether or not other companies have hit the headlines yet, “too few CEOs” look at issues, says Jordan, and ask themselves, “Are we victims of the same ignorance?” If the phenomenon goes deeper than the individual, then perhaps it’s a matter of when, and not if.

So what do you think? Is Harvey Weinstein just a sign of the times? Let us know by emailing thirdrail@ozy.com or by answering in the comments below.

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