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Workplace Culture: We Can Do Better

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By Susan Kinney, Senior Consultant, Copley Raff Inc.

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a panel discussion addressing gender bias, sexual harassment, and bullying in the workplace. This session on “changing culture” was hosted and moderated by Jane Doe Inc. and featured Boston Globe business columnist Shirley Leung and workplace expert Lauren Stiller Rikleen, attorney and author of “The Shield of Silence.”

While the subject was still top of mind, an incredulous article hit my newsfeed early this morning. A former Ernst & Young executive has come forward to share portions of an employee “training” manual and the headline would imply that HuffPost had unearthed blatantly sexist documents from the 1950’s. The shocker is that this training session was held in June 2018. In a nutshell, the 55-page presentation focuses on how women need to “fix themselves” to fit into a male-dominated workplace.

Attendees at EY’s PPP training were told a series of falsehoods that reinforced insulting and long outdated gender stereotypes, like: “Women’s brains absorb information like pancakes soak up syrup so it’s hard for them to focus. Men’s brains are more like waffles. They’re better able to focus because the information collects in each little waffle square.” Or: “When women speak, they shouldn’t be shrill. Clothing must flatter, but short skirts are a no-no. After all, ‘sexuality scrambles the mind.’ Women should look healthy and fit, with a ‘good haircut’ and ‘manicured nails.” It only gets worse from there.

The Me Too Watershed

The #MeToo movement began in fall 2017 with widespread, highly publicized sexual abuse allegations against producer Harvey Weinstein and US Gymnastics team “doctor” Lawrence Nassar. Since then, no sector has gone untouched, the scandals keep on coming, and the movement continues to be at the forefront of American life. In the past month alone, New Englanders have seen the firing of disgraced NFL wide receiver Antonio Brown and the City of Boston pull $248 million in pension funds from billionaire money manager Ken Fisher, following his lewd comments at an investment conference.

The Jane Doe panelists were asked to address what #MeToo progress looks like two years down the road. There was group discussion about perpetrators, victims, retaliation, lawsuits, and the desire of many institutions to continue sweeping allegations under the rug. The effect on bystanders was highlighted, and how a workplace can quickly become toxic in the midst of gender discrimination and harassment. Workplace misconduct even affects families since the victims, often mothers, are subjected to stress and fear on a daily basis.

A Long Way To Go

What I found disheartening in the panel discussion was that despite higher awareness and increased empowerment around sexual harassment, hostility is on the rise and diminishment of women in the workplace has become increasingly nuanced. While companies are cracking down on the most egregious behavior, gender bias is more covert and is taking different forms. Female employees are accused of incompetency, subjected to micro aggressions, demeaned in front of colleagues, and demoted. The very real fear of retaliation continues to impede the reporting of abuse and harassment.

The Non-Profit Workplace

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” – Warren Buffett

Non-profit leaders, like all leaders, have an obligation to prevent, investigate, and address gender-based discrimination. Misconduct can take place in any organization and board members can potentially can face liability for violations of state or federal laws that prohibit sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting abuse or discrimination.

A harassment scandal will not only erode public trust, a vital aspect of an organization’s support and success, it will also demoralize employees in a way that contravenes our shared values of equal opportunity. The harm reaches beyond lawsuits and fines — it can devastate an entire organization and the communities the organization works with and serves.1

Our sector is not immune to issues of gender bias and we must position ourselves at the forefront of progress and awareness. Women are still underrepresented in non-profit leadership and females in this industry have experienced discrimination and sexual harassment at levels commensurate with national statistics.2

Time For A Checkup

Gender misconduct has no place in a sector dedicated to public benefit. Has your organization done a self-check on its policies and procedures regarding discrimination and sexual harassment? As a community, we must take a stand for what is right in terms of workplace equity and respect for every employee, regardless of age, gender, race, or sexual orientation. Non-profits are mission-driven and exist to make the world a better place. Make sure your organization is walking the walk.

1. Non-Profit Law Blog: “Protecting Your Non-Profit From Sexual Harassment”
2. “Why Women Are Still Underrepresented In Non-Profit Leadership and What We Can Do About It”


Your Takes:

1. Focus on Culture: A culture that stresses both respect and accountability is one of the best preventative shields for harassment of any type.

2. Establish or Review Policies and Procedures: What does zero tolerance mean to your organization and how will you enforce this? Adopt written policies that prohibit harassment of any sort and provide protection for those who raise concerns or complaints. Consider creating a board committee to review these policies, as well as the process for reporting policy violations, creating a confidential place for whistleblowers to address their complaint.

3. Provide Training: Training can build awareness about prohibited conduct and familiarize everyone with procedures that are in place to protect victims, investigate allegations, and address violations. Team-building exercises and workplace learning programs designed to raise awareness about unconscious bias, diversity, inclusivity, sensitivity, bystander intervention, and equity are positive ways to build a more progressive and respectful culture.

4. Incorporate Zero Tolerance into Employee Orientation: Set expectations for conduct early. Within their first days of employment/service, new staff, volunteers, and board members should learn about your organization’s policies prohibiting harassment and retaliation and where to report concerns.

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Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay