2 years on – Oprah’s new horizon becomes a reinforced glass ceiling

Two years ago, Oprah galvanized the Golden Globes with her #metoo speech. She declared a new day was on the horizon. For men – time was up. Oprah threw down the gauntlet on gender equality. Hollywood elites roared in appreciation. People implored her to run for president. With Oprah Winfrey as CEO of gender equality, how could a new day not be on the horizon for women?

Let’s face it, Hollywood and MainStreet share little in common. Oprah’s speech, in combination with millions of #metoo tweets and the newly launched Times Up movement, sounded to many like women declaring war on men – all men – from abusers to allies. With men holding the vast majority of senior leadership positions in the public and private sectors, heeding a call to arms to protect their own was inevitable. What were the prospects women would prevail? In 2019, Forbes 75 most powerful people included five women. Time’s 25 most influential leaders of 2019 counted four women. Biography’s 100 most influential people of all time included two women. In 2019, 11 out of 100 of the richest people in the world were women. In 2019, 25 female CEOs were leading S&P 500 companies and 23 women were leading 193 sovereign nations. 

Women have not prevailed. In the past two years, the path to gender equality has gone backward. In 2017, the World Economic Forum predicted it would take 170 years for economic equality, in 2018, it rose to 202 years and in 2019, to 257 years. 

Look at some of the subtle ways men are halting the progress of women. The number of male managers consciously avoiding one-on-ones with female subordinates has skyrocketed. Harvard Business Review reported in 2019 that 27% of men said they were avoiding one-on-one meetings with women colleagues and 21% said they were leery about hiring women where a job required close interactions. A survey in 2019 by Lean In and Survey Monkey found that 60% of men are uncomfortable mentoring, socializing, or working one-on-one with women: a 32% increase since 2018. Meetings with women have been characterized as unknown risks and something to be avoided. 

Women already face a host of unconscious biases in the workplace. A heightened fear of interacting with women is bound to increase them. How can women dispel biases held by the male gatekeepers of their career if they’re excluded from interacting with them? The giant gap between male and female leaders will never be closed with increased segregation and people and organizations will never experience the validated benefits of sufficiently representing the other 50% of the population. 

One good news outcome for #metoo is that sexual harassment in the workplace appears to be on the wane. The bad news is, it’s being countered with increased gender harassment. Gender harassment is like sexual harassment minus the sex. Things like insulting the competence of women, belittling their professional presence, or making crude comments about women in general. Men are altering behaviors that cast them as sexual deviants to ones that paint them as chauvinists or garden-variety sexists. This turn of events is similar to the change that took place when overt discrimination against women was made illegal in the sixties. Discrimination in an unconscious and ambiguously legal form skyrocketed (Note: according to the EEOC, gender harassment in “serious” forms is supposed to be illegal). Sexual or gender harassment has the same impact on women. Confidence takes a hit, perceptions of suitability for senior leadership are decremented again, and women exit the workforce. You could say the mission of letting women know who’s in charge is accomplished with either form of harassment. 

There have been some positive #metoo outcomes. Company leaders have stepped forward with measures to strengthen policies against sexual harassment and have made commitments to promote more women into senior leadership. It’s still unclear if the walk is matching the talk. Some nations have also strengthened laws against sexual harassment, but enforcement remains a question mark. There are always problems implementing unpopular policies or laws, particularly when people believe they were motivated by politics or public relations. There is also the reality that while most agree on what constitutes sexual assault, agreement is missing when it comes to sexual harassment or serious gender harassment. How could there be agreement? Northeastern University’s Dr. Judith Hall, an expert on forms of sexism, which include actions of sexual and gender harassment, said these actions can “literally look welcoming, appealing, and harmless” to some women — but not all women. It seems reasonable that men could be confused and angry by being cast as a sexual predator for something many women see as harmless or even a positive endorsement of their attractiveness.

Women should never be declaring war on men, and not just because men are in the catbird seat. Wars have winners and losers; the goal is win:win equality. To make progress toward this goal, women need a lot more than Oprah. Women leaders need to be at least 25% on all of those top-powerful-people lists. With critical mass, women leaders can get beyond the stigma of tokenism and can leverage their positions of power to influence others to accept that moving toward equality is in everyone’s interest. How women get there won’t have the glamour of Hollywood. Instead, it will have lots of women that understand why #metoo backfired, why and how discrimination against women, including sexual and gender harassment, is perpetuated, and what women can do to rise above socially-baked-in biases to land positions of senior leadership. Then we can talk about a target for a new horizon of gender equality, and it needs to be a lot less than 257 years. 

Stay tuned – more articles about #metoo as a global movement and outcomes around the world are coming up!

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