Recently, Merriam-Webster declared that the word of the year was “Feminism.” Time’s Person of the Year was “The Silence Breakers,” a moniker for the women who brought light to rampant sexual harassment in technology, media, government and other industries. And The Financial Times’ Person of the Year was Susan Fowler, who spoke out way back in February about her experiences with explicit sexual harassment at Uber.
On January 21, the Women’s Marches in DC, New York, and other cities dominated headlines, showing a seemingly unified voice of American women, despite the fragmentation suggested by the 2016 election. And this year, for the first time, women were the main players in some of the most prominent television shows, including “Big Little Lies,” “Veep,” and “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
In the wake of the #MeToo movement and “The Reckoning” that has followed, women have gained greater political power and appointments. Women appear poised to receive key leadership positions due to — ironically (or perhaps not so ironically) — Al Franken’s resignation, as well as the unexpected death of the Mayor of San Francisco.
Meanwhile, in the corporate sphere, where I reside, Fowler’s blog post demonstrated that outright harassment was institutionalized at a Silicon Valley Unicorn. And a few months later, James Damore’s blatantly sexist Google memo revealed that discrimination can persist even in an organization that makes leading efforts to eliminate it. Traditional companies remain dominated by male leadership, with the percentage of women leading Fortune 500 companies ticking up ever so slightly from 4% in 2016 to 6% in 2017.
The #MeToo conversation and related news have certainly given momentum and voice to the gender equality movement in a way that I have not seen in my lifetime. But will it mean progress? Was 2017 a good year for gender equality? Ultimately, I think it will depend women doing three things in 2018:
The #MeToo campaign has shed light on the corners where serial sexual predators have lurked for years. The movement has made clear how these men have used their positions of power - particularly in the spheres of media, news and technology - to systematically suppress the advancement of women and limit their opportunities. Nevertheless, as a professional proponent of workplace gender equality, I have deep concern that the emphasis placed on harassment may actually impede progress toward workplace gender equality in the coming years.
Whether it’s my serial optimism or my 20 years’ experience in Corporate America, I genuinely believe that most men in the workplace are well meaning. When news broke about Harvey Weinstein, I doubt that anyone in any corner of the world thought to themselves, “That’s shocking. He was such a nice guy!” Weinstein was notoriously abusive to women and to men who worked for him. (Just Google “Weinstein throwing things” and you’ll see what I mean.) Unfortunately, bad people do bad things; and often, bad people in positions of power do worse things.
Those who have truly and seriously transgressed should, without a doubt, be called to the carpet. Women who’ve been victimized deserve to be heard. But then, we need to heal and move forward to translate this catharsis into progress. The wake of #MeToo has created a world in which conscientious men are so concerned about how their actions or comments might land that they are nervous about how to interact with women. For example, a man might wonder, "Is it appropriate to invite a woman who reports to me out to lunch to celebrate the holidays?" It would be a tragedy if the unintended consequence of #MeToo was that fewer men hired, collaborated with, sponsored or promoted women.
Building Stronger Alliances
If 2017 was the year of peeling back the onion to destroy the institutions and individuals that propagated rampant harassment, let’s make 2018 the year of re-building. True gender equality in the workplace will depend on two key alliances: one between women and male allies, and another among women.
I’m pleased to say that my company frequently receives unsolicited outreach from men asking how they can be allies to women. They tell us they want to support women, but they are unsure of how to proceed and afraid of doing or saying the wrong thing. So now, in the wake of 2017, it’s critical that women reach our arms out to these men and engage them as collaborators. Give them meaningful agency in the campaign for gender equality so that we can move ahead together.
Even more importantly, women, now, more than ever, need to stand up and support women. Recently, I had the exciting opportunity to meet with the leadership of women’s employee resource groups from over 50 companies. In this moment, it’s crucial that these organizations band together, both within and across corporations, to effect change. If women do not collaborate — or better yet collude — to drive equality, we will never achieve it.
Despite the progress we’ve witnessed, there are many ways in which women continue to face inequality in the workplace, whether it’s matters of pay, promotion, culture, representation in management, or flat-out harassment. However, a battle fought on many fronts is not destined for success.
For that reason, I’d like to call upon women everywhere to rally together around the most important and fundamental issue: the lack of women in leadership positions. More women in leadership — whether corporate, government, academic, or in other areas — means more policies and decisions that are made with women’s interest in minds. The next time that issues of women’s healthcare are debated in Congress, let’s make sure that women are well represented at the table. The next time that corporate leadership makes a decision about who gets promoted, let’s make sure women are the ones making that decision.
There are three essential requirements to achieving this goal: 1) we need men to support women — which means that we need to focus on how we build bridges; 2) we need women to support women. (Hint: Next time a woman runs for office, we should vote for her. Next time an abuser of woman runs for office, we have to vote against him.) And, we need to help advance our fellow women in the workplace every day in every way we can; and 3) we need women to, in those famous words of Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In. Now is the time that women must stand up to take on important leadership positions, even when it feels uncomfortable.
Recently, I had the pleasure of meeting Krish Vignarajah, an extraordinary young woman. After a stint working corporate world and then as policy director for Michelle Obama, the Sri Lankan-born Vignarajah, mother of a 5-month-old, is boldly running for Governor of Maryland.
In order for 2017 to have been a good year for gender equality, and 2018, and the years that follow, we need thousands more Krish’s. In 2018, I would love to change the meaning of #MeToo to “Me too: I stood up and did something to advance gender equality.”
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