Sex and Power

The Sexual Harassment Enlightenment

Businessmen at a Strip Club
It’s a slippery slope from objectifying women to sexual harassment. Source: Getty

Sexual harassment allegations are causing men in high-power positions in the United States to lose their jobs on an almost weekly basis. The latest case involves the popular US comedian Louis C.K.: Women came forward saying he engaged in bizarre behavior, like masturbating in front of female coworkers. Movie theaters are removing his film from their lineups and TV talk shows are cancelling interviews. Louis C.K., who admitted his guilt, said he thought it was ok, as long as he asked them first: “The power I had over these women is that they admired me.”

The relationship between power and sex is a difficult and complex subject that needs clarification – as these non-stop revelations show. Sexual assault perpetrated by film producer Harvey Weinstein marked a turning point for American companies. The issue is no longer limited to the Hollywood entertainment industry, but is spreading across all sectors and corporate hierarchies.

The global advertising agency Interpublic Group will require its 20,000 employees attend sexual harassment seminars by the end of 2017. And companies like Dell, Facebook and Rockwell International are hosting similar events, even though they are unaffected by scandal.

And for good reason: Sexual harassment harms and humiliates people. It also costs shareholders money, something executive boards and boards of directors are starting to realize. But unfortunately, sexual harassment is an all-too-common reality of everyday life: One in four Americans has been sexually harassed in the workplace, according to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. A survey by the Wall Street Journal and NBC put that number closer to 50 percent. Most of the victims are women.

“Excluding women simply makes no economic sense.”

Christine Lagarde, Head of the International Monetary Fund

As more details come to light, the behavior of some men is unbelievable and disgusting. Mr. Weinstein’s and Louis C. K.’s behavior show the full extent of their ignorance and the warped sense of self derived from their positions of power.

Beyond the issue of morality, sexual harassment is also an economic problem, acting as an additional barrier facing women when entering the work force and advancing within it. Women are indispensable to companies and the economy. Studies show they handle money better than men, inject different points of view and think more long-term. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that productivity per employee in the United States rose by up to 20 percent between 1960 and 2008 – due to “improved allocation of talent.” What they mean is the growing number of women active professionally.

Low birth rates in industrialized countries, and shared roles within the home, help keep women an indispensable part of the workforce. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), traditional gender roles threaten Japan’s overall economy.  If the country achieves gender parity in employment over the next 20 years, it could see a 20 percent improvement in its GDP. To use the words of Christine Lagarde, head of the IMF: “Excluding women simply makes no economic sense.”

Investors are well aware. Uber founder Travis Kalanick’s escapades cost his company billions of dollars, as the company’s difficulty securing recent investment from SoftBank shows: The Japanese conglomerate agreed to proceed with the investment only after Mr. Kalanick resigned and gave control to Uber’s board of directors. Then there is Roy Price, the former head of Amazon Studios, who not only harassed women for years, but let his drinking habits get in the way of creating content. This helped Netflix beat Amazon to the punch and create its own in-house productions, like House of Cards, before anyone else. It is only wryly amusing that the leading star of the series, Kevin Spacey, is now caught in the crossfire of sexual harassment allegations himself.

Even Wall Street, with its macho culture and propensity for hosting parties in strip clubs, is coming face-to-face with sexual harassment. Investor magazine Barron’s ran a cover story titled: Sexual Harassment is Becoming a Serious Investment Risk. Investors may be willing to put up with insinuating jokes, but they have no interest in losing money.

Without a doubt, the issue will remain on the front page, as more people follow in the footsteps of the initial brave few who were willing to speak up against those in power. They will finally feel safe to report assault without being stigmatized or ridiculed. And the Internet is the perfect platform for victims to take their experiences public. It results in real consequences, privately and professionally, for those who assault and harass others – something not seen in the past. Seeing this new-found awareness seep into American boardrooms is gratifying, and it is made better knowing that the spillover will reach Germany. The United States may be a puritanical country, but sexual harassment and assault are global problems. Finally the world is on the verge of an enlightenment, one that breaks the link between sex and power, and is urgently needed.

To reach the author: jahn@handelsblatt.com.

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