Office politics — using power in the workplace to achieve personal gain — is a corrosive force. It wears down motivation, destroys teams and produces paralyzing stress. Add misogyny to the mix, and the result is a recipe for corporate cultural disaster.
Three years ago, explosive headlines cast the spotlight on movie producer Harvey Weinstein and unveiled a much wider picture of Hollywood’s disturbing corporate culture steeped in misogyny. Inappropriate behavior was rewarded and power dynamics prevented victims from speaking up. While Weinstein’s trial and prison sentence led to a partial reckoning and call for change in the entertainment industry, misogynistic work cultures persist daily in many work settings, be it company settings, sports, politics and on college campuses.
For CEOs, the need to identify and eliminate office politics tied to a misogynistic culture has never been greater. In addition, CEOs must create an environment that empowers women in order for everyone within the corporation to work together effectively to address the current challenges. Here are four recommendations for CEOs to head off these behaviors before they grind down an organization:
• Disrupt commoditization. Among the most dangerous behaviors that can imperil a company is commoditization – the process by which women are devalued to the point of being undistinguishable and treated as objects. In a workplace, women are dehumanized for example, by being expected to “fetch” or when they are continuously interrupted during meetings. This represents an area of bias that has proven to be related to misperceptions of women as leaders. In this type of bias, studies have shown that women who display behaviors associated with leadership in men are often described negatively. These behaviors become so ingrained they are considered suitable and expected. Effective CEOs reinforce uniqueness and novel thinking as a value. At Pepperdine Graziadio, we work with CEOs and other senior managers to constantly encourage innovation which also serves to disrupt commoditized thinking.
• Break the code. CEOs must be constantly vigilant for a secret and subtle set of words or gestures that are really disguised messages. Often this plays out in the “bro-code” — a set of unwritten rules dictating how a man should act to protect his manhood. The goal of the bro-code is to gather power and diminish women. CEOs must decipher and break the code strands from inside jokes, backhanded insults, closed-door meetings and men-only social gatherings.
• Disarm coordinated assaults. In national security terms a complex coordinated attack is “a violent assault or series of assaults that employs one or more types of weapons, intending to injure or kill large numbers of people.” Many workplace episodes are not unlike a complex coordinated mob attack. Two or more coworkers, team up to plan a political “assault” on a person or a group. Sadly, the assault team are often men and women. The weapons of choice are negative stereotypes or false claims used to defame and destroy. Leadership on the part of a CEO can set the tone and deliver a message that coordinated assaults are not to be tolerated.
• Head off self-inflicted abuse. Like coordinated assaults, self-inflicted abuse or internalized sexism takes the form of sexist behaviors and attitudes enacted by women toward themselves or other women and girls. Body issues, lack of self-confidence, competition, and a sense of powerlessness are often at the root and result in women deliberately harming themselves. CEOs need to work with HR to head off these behaviors. More importantly, by empowering women there is an opportunity to reverse this trend, creating an environment in which diverse optics enable companies to address challenges with the agility required for strategic advantage in today’s turbulent world.
For CEOs, the current Covid dynamic and pressure on women is a two-fold concern. Covid is fueling conditions that could push women out of the workforce. According to consulting firm McKinsey & Co., mothers are more than three times as likely as fathers to be responsible for most of the housework and caregiving during the pandemic. Many working women may feel greater pressure to conform to the circumstances no matter how unfair. Being out of an office setting may make it more, not less, necessary for CEOs to maintain a presence and promote fairness, sincerity and flexibility. CEOs must be intentional about the culture they are creating in the virtual and real environments of their now distribute corporations. This is vital given that diversity in decision-making and design influences strategic positioning. The voices and intellect of women are critical success factors.
Some CEOs may maintain false beliefs about a healthy work culture that are not based in reality. Other CEOs believe addressing work culture issues are more trouble than it is worth. However, the real cost of neglect far outweighs the perceived safety of inaction. One estimate places a statistical cost of an instance of sexual harassment at $7.6 million. The cost to a company’s culture, mission and goals can be destructive to the point of total loss. On the flip-side, a vibrant diverse culture including women increases opportunities for businesses success.
Corporate America is at an inflection point: Will management simply avoid creating a workplace environment that is toxic? Or will CEOs empower women and build a corporate culture that takes on extraordinary challenges?
Three years after Harvey Weinstein revelations, it is time to demolish misogynistic behavior and office politics and raise up a new, monumental workplace standard.