By Lauren Brown —
Change is happening in how we think about respect, equality, and dignity in the workplace. It’s being driven by citizens across the country. And three very different people are some of the leading voices in the #MeToo movement – they are the sparks that ignited this fire: Tarana Burke, Ashley Judd, and Ronan Farrow.
At WorkHuman, they sat together for the first time ever in an inspired panel discussion, moderated by Wharton professor and long-time advocate for workplace equality Adam Grant, to talk about the major issues facing HR leaders around respect and equality in the workplace, and the behaviors that have no place there. As Globoforce CEO Eric Mosley pointed out yesterday about why we, as an organization, have chosen to talk about #MeToo and #TimesUp, “There’s nothing political about sexual assault.”
Adam started by asking Tarana why and how the #MeToo movement started.
“I grew up in the south and have spent my life doing social justice work. It surprised me that, in my community, we would fight about police brutality and other issues, but we never fought about sexual abuse,” she said. “The #MeToo movement came as a response to what I thought was a community issue.”
As someone who endured childhood sexual abuse, she mentioned the “interrupters” in her life – other women she could turn to when she felt alone.
“The times when people embraced me and said, ‘I understand that, I have a deep connection to that,’ that’s what started to change for me. Very early on, I saw how using my story as the impetus could change young people’s lives. This idea of empowerment through empathy is so strong and useful, community healing is what was needed to interrupt sexual violence. It’s not just about healing an individual, but healing a community.”
Her advice for how to become an interrupter?
“Part of what happens is this shroud of shame we live under makes young people feel complicit in their own abuse. I spent so many years thinking it was my fault. One way we interrupt sexual violence is sharing truths that tear down the lies. The workshops I’ve done were about giving young people the words to describe what happened to them. It’s about being honest, being open, having community conversations, and giving young people the language to use.”
When asked about being one of the first women in Hollywood to speak out about abuse, Ashley said, “I’ve always been a teller. I was molested when I was 7. We go straight to flight, fight, or freeze. I’m a fighter. After the infamous incident with Harvey (Weinstein) at the Peninsula, my dad was visiting me and he was waiting for me in the hotel lobby, and he said he could tell by my face that something was wrong and I told him. I would have told the concierge if he’d been the only authority figure in the room. I recorded my story for the Library of Congress and my interviewer asked me if I was afraid, and I said I was afraid what would happen to me if I didn’t say something.”
For Ronan, two things were going through his mind as he was breaking the Weinstein story.
“This was a public safety issue. This was a pattern. The very first source I talked to was sexual violence, a rape allegation. It became impossible to sleep at night if I wasn’t honoring the sources who were telling their stories. The women who spoke out were the foundation of what catalyzed this into something huge. The other facet was that this was about systems. Not just about Harvey Weinstein, not just about the entertainment industry. This was playing out in every industry. It became apparent that the systems were just as much the story.”
So how can HR leaders and the world at large leverage this moment in time to create a culture change?
Tarana told us, “Community problems need community solutions. The Weinstein company is equally complicit – this is not about taking down powerful men. You can’t change policies after you find things out. You have to have a culture where this won’t happen.”
Tarana continued,“We’re definitely still afraid of being uncomfortable. What I would tell HR is that if you are a leader, I do think it takes one person to say, ‘You know what, I went to this conference, and let’s try something different. This is for all of our benefit. If we try together and fail together, we can rebound together.’”
Adam asked, “What does it take to show women or anyone that they can be heard?”
“I think each of us learning how to listen on a deep and human level is the fulcrum on what the movement swings,” Ashley said. “I come with my privilege. But if I come at least there is this aperture with which we can connect. The more we can see each other the less defensive we become.”
Tarana added, “We aren’t going to move the needle at all if we don’t work together. In this moment, it is so important we recognize that sexual violence knows no age, gender, race, or culture, but how we respond to it does. That’s how we have to work collectively.”
Adam pointed out that as a side effect of #MeToo, male senior executives who were mentoring women are now afraid to be alone with them. He asked, what it’s going to take to overcome those fears?
“It’s not a solution to sequester ourselves, so I love organizations like A Call to Men that are developing new cultural norms about masculinity,” said Ashley. “Also, having direct dialogue face-to-face. What is wrong with saying ‘I feel awkward’? It’s OK to be human.”
On what HR can do in this moment, Tarana added, “If men in a company are saying they’re scared now, HR people need to reshape that. We aren’t going to penalize women and roll back decades of progress. We have a unique opportunity in the world to have a culture shift. If we start having conversations that will derail this whole moment, the window of opportunity will close. On social media, in the first 24 hours that #MeToo went viral there were 12 million posts with that hashtag and every one of those hashtags is a person. If there were 12 million people affected by a deadly disease in 24 hours, we wouldn’t be trivializing the conversation.”
Their final advice for HR leaders?
“I do think there’s urgency and I would urge companies to seize this moment,” Tarana offered. “Listen to the people around you and employees. But take your time in institutionalizing processes in your company, because you want things that will last for decades to come, so that when our grandchildren come up they have this whole other reality.”
There may be cycles of abuse and it takes a small group to say, “This ends here, this ends now.” That group isn’t so small anymore, and if we stay united through our differences and use empathy as our mortar, we can build cultures where everyone feels safe and empowered.
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