Friday, June 1, 2018

Damned If You Do and Slammed if you Won't

On my morning jog yesterday, I listened to a heartbreaking This American Life podcast entitled Damned if you Do. It poignantly portrayed the story of a Somalian refugee interned in Dadaab, Kenya who was ultimately compelled to return to war-torn Somalia because the only way to pay the debt to the store owner accumulated trying to feed her children, was to accept the $450 incentive payment to return to her country of origin. She then pushes almost all the money she's just been given through the cyclone fence at the airstrip to the sympathetic but desperate Dadaab store owner, boards a plane with two of her children for Mogadishu; the city she'd fled, again broke and imperilled.

Thankfully, in our civilised democratic country, few situations will ever compare to the type of gut-wrenching decision this mother had to make but I can't help thinking that we're living in a time where women are wrestling with their own version-lite of Damned if You Do and the sceptics, the victim shamers and the misogynists have come out to play.

Amidst this revolution to which we all bear witness, where any contemporary business publication we read is crowded with discussion about gender equity, diversity, meritocracy, the patriarchy, feminism, wage parity, targets and quotas, we see a myriad of perspectives and many are prima facie, reasonable. The truth is that there are thirty shades of context, perspective, dynamic tension and dilemma (i.e. unsolvable problems) that don't sit tidily in a box for all of us to gift wrap and present to those who would seek clarity. And indeed the more we apply reductionist theories to such intricate dilemmas, the more our positions reek of undisclosed bias.

To be brutally honest, exploring the issues around this is difficult and dangerous; open to interpretation and mischief, conscious and unconscious bias, good intention in some and underhanded yet unspoken desire to see women fail in others. And yes, some of those who wish to see women fail, are women. It's really uncomfortable to contemplate that and even more disquieting to talk about it.

A very uncomfortable truth is that a small but destructive percentage of the population at large, not complainants per se, are immoral, untruthful, jealous, vengeful. Some of them may be motivated by attention-seeking, some pathologically so. How else do we explain trolling? Some break implicit and explicit promises to privacy. Just ask AFL footballers! And some are sadly, unscrupulously opportunistic. There I said it. Remember the author who reportedly made money off vulnerable sick people by claiming to have cured herself of cancer?

Even if we acknowledge that dark underbelly of human behaviour in such a small sliver of the population, is it fair that any sexual harassment victim has to worry people will judge her through this lens? Dammed if she does. And what swift and public condemnation of anyone who doubts her or is perceived to blame her? In the recent case of EY, it appears this may have been handled poorly, but when we're dealing with perceptions, can we assume every complaint of unlawful behaviour must surely be true and every respondent surely "guilty as charged"? Sure I see some cases of staff believing they're being bullied when it's probable they're being reasonably performanced-managed. And even when we do perceive wrongdoing in sexual harassment grievances (and in my 25 years consulting in this space, often where there's smoke there's fire), how do we remain calm and objective, taking matters seriously without taking sides, coming to "The Truth" as best we can and perfecting the proportional response, including the communication around it?

A common current objection is that if the behaviour was unwelcome, why do some women take so long to complain about alleged sexual harassment? We know why. Fear of victimisation for complaining, lack of awareness that such behaviour actually constitutes sexual harassment, despairing resignation to established cultural norms are but a few. She's damned if she doesn't or if she does slowly. And let's not disregard the challenge for men subjected to unwelcome sexual attention by women. Many blokes would get elbowed in the ribs by buddies asking them what was wrong with them. The biased assumption being any sexual attention by a woman to a (straight) man must surely be welcome. 

Some women (and men) trade on their good looks and sexuality. They flirt. They accommodate. Maybe, some of us will concede grudgingly, targets merely tolerate unwelcome attention but their willingness to be 'objectified' undermines the cause and denies opportunities to those who might have earned opportunities on merit. This is a simple, oft-expressed and convenient notion. But what if the behaviour started in a "lesser" form, has continued to escalate and that what was viewed as mildly annoying, uncomfortable but tolerable has morphed into something far more intimidating and noxious? We will all have our own threshold - over which we may break... or speak. 

Here's another Catch 22. I think we're pretty well aware these days of the double standard that can operate in how women are perceived vis a vis male counterparts enacting the same behaviours. This bias isn't always vindictive yet it is heavily socialised. So is the narrow view (sometimes unconscious) still held by some that the hero leader; male, pale, stale, authoritative, above average height and looks (should I go on?) is the best version of a leader. By definition women can't be that. Many won't want to be that and is that what's needed anyway? Brad Pitt was a good Achilles but this is not Troy!

What about the ugly truth of women who kick the ladder out from under them after they climb it. Shouldn't they know better? Shouldn't they be better than that? Well I know I feel a lot better when I'm sugar free but that didn't stop me having lemon tart at lunch yesterday. While I won't condone ladder kickers, many men won't ever truly understand what it's like to be crippled by the scarcity mentality; the perception that there are still so few senior opportunities for women that the only competition they see is... another woman. And, as Sheryl Sandberg said in "Lean In" with research to prove it, it's a crime for a woman to be ambitious. And do we even have a name for the men that elbow other men out of the way for an opportunity or over inflate their abilities shamelessly to win jobs they can't really perform? No, because men are expected by the historical laws of nature and tradition to go out there and kill that bear. 

Not all men want us to fail. Some women will have wonderful male mentors and advocates. It doesn't hold those women must graciously seize their opportunities. They have the right to decide they're not prepared to make the familial sacrifices required; hence they run into "the maternal wall" or refuse to fight harder than senior men for respect and stay put ("the sticky floor") or spend their day getting concussion hitting "the glass ceiling". And even if they can transcend such barriers, they must now be on the lookout for "the glass cliff"; the hazardous possibility they've been offered the role leading a company in crisis. It may be true the company needs a radically different leader than her predecessor and she fits the bill. But if she takes the role, she's courageous at best and naive at worst. If she declines it, she's "ungracious" or plagued with fear this as the only chance she was going to get and she blew it. If she takes it and it all goes pear-shaped, does she ride out the storm, brace for the risk of a public flogging at the shareholder AGM or put the company and her reputation first by jumping before she's pushed? Damned again.

Diverse boards are statistically shown to be more successful. It doesn't automatically hold that diversity equals competence. In a world typified by long term systemic direct and indirect discrimination against women and other minorities, how do they harness the experience they have not been given the opportunity to acquire? It's not reasonable to hold women who lead troubled organisations to a different (read as harsher) standard nor let them off the hook by labelling anyone who holds them to account as automatically sexist.

Will we look back in ten years and say, in words inspired by Paul Keating that this was the bumpy, fraught, messy, ambiguous watershed moment we had to have? Yes. The circumstances by which we got to robust discussions about sexual harassment, power imbalance and even consenting workplace relationships may have been ignited by three men (Harvey Weinstein, Roy Price, Louis CK) and a baby (Joyce/Campion), but get here we did. Let's give ourselves permission, men and women alike, to navigate this confusing moment in gendered history imperfectly. What's the best we can hope for? Trying to get it right most of the time. Until when? Until such time as gender blindness, true meritocracy, work-life integration, intimate relationships protocols and boardroom diversity are as natural as breathing.