This Business Leader Says Sweden Is Far Ahead of the U.S. When It Comes to Dealing With Sexual Harassment. Here's What We Can Learn.
As a male CEO in tech, I stand firmly behind #MeToo and its potential to reshape power structures across industries, including my own. But, as a native of Sweden, I’m troubled by the slow pace at which things are happening in the United States, where my business has employees and customers, and where I'm based half the year.
Certainly, #MeToo has momentum here -- just consider this past Sunday's Oscars show. But, today -- International Women's Day -- meaningful change still seems like a distant prospect.
A case in point: I was recently chatting with a very senior female tech executive; eventually, the conversation turned to the #MeToo movement and its implications. I asked if she’d ever encountered sexism on her path to a powerful position in a male-dominated industry. And her answer surprised me: She said she hadn’t dealt with those issues because she was always mindful of how she dressed and comported herself.
I was shocked. To me, her point was completely irrelevant to our conversation. I thought we were talking about men harassing women. Yet, her answer made it clear she was talking about implicitly "blaming the victim."
Harassment shouldn't be seen that way -- ever. Yet the reality is that predators like Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes don’t arise by accident. They flourish because of the corporate cultures of silence that protect them. In this way, the enterprise conversation surrounding #MeToo isn’t limited to sexual harassment. It’s a bigger discussion about abuse of power. And it’s this abuse we need to fix.
Sweden continues to make progress, while America stagnates.
In my own country, I’m seeing things move faster. Despite launching in the United States, #MeToo has galvanized Sweden’s women’s movement more than any event in recent memory. In fact, the movement has inspired women across Sweden to come forward with their experiences of harassment and assault.
Certainly, many, many American women have come forward too. But because Sweden is a country where feminism is normalized across both sexes, #MeToo has gained much more momentum, proportionally, with thousands of Swedish women actively petitioning for transformation across multiple industries.
Within the legal sector alone, for example, 6,000 female lawyers have signed a petition to end that profession's culture of silence and eliminate all abuse from the workplace.
In Sweden, I believe, the days of corporate cultures of silence are coming to a close. By comparison, the United States is far behind.
Its lagging pace is due to a national mindset problem. By and large, U.S. society doesn’t accept that sexual assault isn’t about women being harassed, but about men harassing women. This failure to frame the issue properly creates roadblocks to meaningful progress.
I can't understand this roadblock. To me, sexual harassment is a discussion that begins and ends with male behavior. The onus falls entirely on that half of the population. "What women wear" shouldn’t even enter into the conversation. Yet, in the United States, it does: Victim-blaming is entrenched in the culture. And until there’s a collective shift in the mindset, meaningful change will not be sustainable.
So how can we harness #MeToo to create real change in the U.S. workplace? For one thing, we can start by leaving "human resources" out of it, entirely.
Leaving HR out
The solution begins by acknowledging that sexual harassment is not an HR problem -- it’s a leadership problem.
To eliminate assault from the workplace, corporate leaders must openly reject cultures of silence and replace them with cultures of transparency. This requires corporate environments in which the behaviors of leaders at every level are aligned.
Only in that way will proper behavior become a fundamental company value practiced by all.
Tech as a role model
I think the tech industry, in which I work, in San Francisco, is uniquely suited to lead this charge. The reason is some of the reports that have already surfaced (Think: Uber) and the sharply unequal proportion of women to men in tech, in general.
Another reason for tech leading the charge is that our industry is largely populated by millennials, who want a meaningful -- and moral -- work life. Because tech money is big across the board, the deciding factor for young prospects these days is finding a company with the right values. As a result, social responsibility already occupies an important role in tech.
Third, and most significantly, I think tech companies are primed to dismantle those long-standing cultures of silence because of the way our businesses already function. Today’s most successful tech companies operate according to Agile methodology, an approach to software development that rejects rigid hierarchies in favor of empowering smaller teams with autonomy and influence.
A truly Agile environment is one in which employees are empowered and autonomous by design. In this environment, a predator can’t hide behind the walls of his corner office. When everyone’s behavior is aligned with common values, bad behavior is quickly exposed through misalignment.
Agile principles, therefore, can provide a path forward for leaders across all industries
On a business level, Agile allows good ideas to come to fruition faster. Therefore, it applies to corporate culture: When companies run according to Agile principles, the hierarchy becomes a flat surface. Individuals become leaders. And a culture of silence becomes a culture of transparency.
Within the tech realm, we already use Agile for business. It’s time to extend that methodology to business culture, creating corporate environments defined by a unified stance against harassment.
It goes without saying that this evolution will be good for women. But it will also be good for men. Because the truth is that men like Ailes and Weinstein weren't destined to become serial sexual harassers. They became harassers because of the corporate cultures of silence that enabled and protected them -- and, in some companies, still do.
When we eliminate these silence-based cultures and replace them with cultures of transparency and alignment, we can prevent people from becoming predators by quickly identifying and correcting behavior that is not aligned with a company's cultural values.
For the powerful predators who have fallen – and for those yet to fall – the #MeToo movement is a resounding cry of accountability: No matter how lionized you are, your past will catch up to you.
Clearly, combining this and other anti-harassment movements (supporting gay men and women, to name another targeted group) with workplace transparency is the obvious solution to let women and men here in the United States move forward, as equals.