In the wake of recent sexual assault and harassment allegations that have swept through Hollywood, and increasingly other industries as well, it is vital that we examine why it is that gender relations in the workplace is a topic that still carries a certain taboo with it. In an age of disruptive technology, widespread information dissemination and an upending of many traditional power structures, why is it that we are loathe to speak openly about the ‘silent sexism’ that remains an ingrained part of corporate culture?
Here we examine the gender status quo, why gender is relevant in corporate training, and how it can be approached to build healthy workplace relationships.
The position of women in the workplace has come under scrutiny through the recent outpouring of sexual assault allegations against many prominent individuals. Women breaking their silence against powerful men has been termed the ‘Weinstein Effect’, after the high-profile film producer who is alleged to have preyed upon over 140 women. Such seismic occurrences have radically impacted public awareness and found resonance in mainstream culture through the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements. In turn, this has focused attention on the asymmetrical power dynamics that emerge as a result of gender disparity in the workplace.
Late last year, 60 women brought a class-action lawsuit for gender discrimination and disproportionately lower pay against Google. In December 2017, it was rejected because the judge decided that a class action is not permissible in this case. However, a number of women are still pursuing legal action. They contend that Google violated California’s Equal Pay Act, among other offences, and Google themselves have also reported that less than a third of their employees are women, and a mere 9% are not white. A US HIMSS study found that, over the period of a decade, women’s salaries have actually been shrinking in comparison to men’s. It may be that men receive raises more often than women, in addition to them being paid more. Microsoft has been in court more than once for much the same reasons as Google and, before some of us were fully over the parties welcoming in 2018, Uber was ordered to paid out millions for discrimination suits. How can it be that such technologically advanced companies are so behind on gender equity? We assume that these companies will be leaders in such areas as well. This illustrates the insidiousness of silent sexism. A concern has even been raised that, if employers and employees of tech companies are bias in any way, their algorithms will be too. We use Google and its products all the time, but can we really trust it as a neutral search engine on every topic?
What further complicates the matter and presents itself as something of a conundrum, is that a certain level of acceptance often accompanies even blatant sexism, as evidenced by the election of the current US president – who, in spite of allegations of sexual harassment levied against him, managed to clench victory in the 2016 elections. The seemingly little effect on Donald Trump’s popularity and presidential prospects is emblematic in that it points towards a normalisation of predatory behaviour and a negation of the trauma that many women suffer having been exposed to discrimination and the resultant actions that stem from this.
While obstacles exist to universal equality, it is imperative that businesses strive to safeguard against sexism through actively promoting open dialogue, thereby fostering organisational harmony and guarding against staff attrition. An important way of achieving this is by employing training and techniques that can educate and empower staff members. Gender sensitisation is part of diversity training programmes and is aimed at closing gender gaps. Striving for mutual understanding in workplace relations is a crucial part of this. Fortunately, sensitisation can be taught in the training space through exercises and discussion. For example, qualified facilitators will draw out individual views and concerns of members of a new team, establishing understanding and a strong foundation for future interactions. Hypothetical examples and role play can also be used to teach acceptable behaviour successfully.
The Feminist Paradigm
An important foundation for diversity training is a thorough exploration of feminism; looking at what all feminist thought entails, as well as debunking the many misconceptions that surround feminism. As Sakhumzi Mfecane, Professor of Anthropology at UWC, says, ‘Feminism has done more than any other paradigm to enlighten us about the society in which we live, which is not only gender-unequal, but also in terms of race and class.’ Prof. Mfecane further states, ‘Feminism talks about bringing about a society where we are all treated for who we are and not our gender.’
In doing so, feminism addresses the needs of both communities and individuals; including the economically disadvantaged and other marginalised groups – highly relevant for CSR. Importantly, diversity training can draw awareness to the lived experiences of others and in doing so help to create a culture of tolerance and fair treatment.
>> To be aware of generalizing and speaking for a collective experience (statements highlighted in blue)
I think that this last bit below needs to sharpened up and condensed. Maybe just decide on three main points and then end on a strong note, something along the lines of: it is of utmost importance for the societal change that is currently occurring to be represented in the workplace and for corporate culture to exist as an inclusive space, which values individuals on merit as opposed to gender.
Everyone needs to be trained on gender dynamics, particularly managers who can, in turn, foster a culture conducive to the success and growth of all. It is also essential that employees, especially women, feel safer and free to advance in their careers. Likewise, employees can thrive in their careers by learning what is acceptable behaviour, rather than committing offences in the midst of respected companies. Establishing ground rules and conducting group training early on is highly effective in preventing sexism. Prudent executives can put in place safeguards, for example, by instructing employees that sexual advances should not occur at work.
As part of its training programmes, ICHAF offers gender sensitisation for organisations. ICHAF programmes foster mutual understanding among employees and seek to solve the problem of sexism by establishing what behaviour is expected and appropriate in the professional environment. However, we are committed to doing more than this. Diversity training is usually about learning about cultures, languages, traditions, etc., but this has very limited effect. Our programmes go much further. We target the individual psychology of discrimination and appeal to trainees to reconsider their own beliefs and biases as the root causes of discrimination. This is a much more effective route to countering the problems of sexism, racism and more.