Sexual Harassment Became a Topic of Discussion at the World Economic Forum

January 26, 2018, 3:48 PM UTC

In its own way, the #MeToo moment has come to Davos.

At least two panels tackled sexual harassment head on, the first time it’s been a topic of official discussion at the World Economic Forum. The forum’s seven co-chairs this year were women, and while the attendees are still overwhelmingly male, among the younger set, half are female.

Along the promenade, Procter & Gamble Co. sponsored a multimedia installation that dispelled myths about women at work. The “Girls Lounge,” a woman-centered space at the event, was renamed the “Equality Lounge.”

At the same time, the annual gathering of global business elites makes plain the challenges in the broader corporate world. Women made up 20 percent of the attendees, roughly equal to the percentage of women in board rooms – where parity remains a century away. In the program, mentions of biodiversity outnumbered mentions of human diversity by 50 percent. At least three times as many discussions were devoted to blockchain technology and cryptocurrencies than to sexual harassment and gender balance.

‘Hello Beautiful Ladies’

Sexual harassment pushed its way onto the business agenda this year, following the downfall of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein and an ensuing wave of allegations that continue to bring low other high-profile men across industries. Global leaders are grappling with the same questions and concerns that are fueling rabid discussions on social media and at the bar: Trying to understand where we go from here.

During social activities, guests navigated some of the same awkwardness that can color gender dynamics at work. In the cafe at the congress center in Davos, a handful of female executives were catching up when a man they knew approached their table. “Hello beautiful ladies,” he began, then reconsidered. “Oh, wait, I probably shouldn’t be saying that. Or can I? Is it OK to be saying it?”

One company is starting with the very basics. Centene Corp. has asked some executives and a board member to come up with a definition of harassment, said Michael Neidorff, chief executive officer of the health care company.

“Is it putting a hand on a shoulder, or a more aggressive move?” said Neidorff. “Before you establish how to fix harassment you need to figure out what it is.”

The Three C’s

Pat Milligan, global Leader of Mercer’s Multinational Client Group and ‘When Women Thrive’ said it’s not that hard. Most behavior falls into one of what she calls the three C’s: Clueless, creepy, or criminal.

“If you actually don’t know that your behavior is really offensive to this group of women or other diverse people, you can say that and I will give you the benefit of the doubt and I will try to coach you,” she said in an interview. “But then things start to repeat. It becomes creepy.”

As one sign of positive change at Davos, Milligan pointed to the number of men who are showing interest in the conversation. When she hosted a breakfast on gender-related topics at Davos four years ago, men made up 4 percent of the audience, she estimated. This week, they made up roughly 40 percent of participants.

Jack Ma, founder and executive chairman of Alibaba Group Holding Ltd., said during a session today that women were the secret of his company’s success in e-commerce. Women make up about half of the company’s employees and 37 percent of executives.

“Last century people competed with muscle. This century is not muscle, it’s wisdom,” Ma said. “If you want your company to be successful, if you want your company to operate with wisdom, with care, women (are) the best.”

London Dinner

Still, just as Davos got underway, news from the U.K. provided a vivid reminder of how ingrained some behaviors remain in the business world. A story in the Financial Times described in detail a fancy, men-only charity dinner where hostesses were harassed and groped. In an interview with Bloomberg Editor-in-Chief John Micklethwait on Thursday, Prime Minister Theresa May condemned such actions.

“I was frankly appalled when I read the report,” May said. “I thought that that sort of attitude of the objectification of women was something that was in the past. Sadly, what that event showed is that there is still a lot more work for us to do.”

To that end, several executives at Davos focused on the need for accountability, even at companies’ highest levels. Businesses have for too long erred in siding with high achievers over their victims, said Dara Khosrowshahi, CEO of ride haling company Uber Technologies Inc. He was appointed in August after founder Travis Kalanick was ousted, in part because of a culture that some employees said fostered harassment and put business results before all other concerns. Kalanick remains on the Uber board.

“It’s incredibly important for the top performers to actually be held to account more radically than anyone else, because they’re the ones who have followership in the company,” Khosrowshahi said. “They have to set the example.”

Long Way to Go

ManpowerGroup Inc. CEO Jonas Prising echoed the emphasis on accountability for employees at every level. The company created a seven-step plan to promote more gender diversity and also sent a memo to its worldwide staff after harassment allegations at other companies surfaced.

“If your top performer is misbehaving but you accept it because of financial results you are effectively saying it is acceptable,” Prising said. “A lot of executives have been focused on this but despite that there is still a long way to go in terms of what acceptable behavior means.”

The priority is to recognize the problem and take firm action whenever there are issues, said Anna Marrs, Standard Chartered Plc’s CEO of commercial and private banking and one of the most senior women at a global bank.

“We make sure young women have other women to talk to at the top tables so they’re not just talking to a group of men,” she said in a interview at Davos. “But I stress this is not a done deal; it’s a multi-year process.”

In the U.S., an estimated three out of four sexual harassment incidents go unreported because of fear of retaliation, according to a 2016 report by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Previous EEOC studies found that almost three quarters of employees who did speak out later said they experienced retaliation.

New Normal

As women gain power, harassment diminishes, said Peggy Johnson, executive vice president of business development at Microsoft Corp., who spoke on one of the panels tackling sexual harassment in Davos on Tuesday.

“Things have definitely changed for me as I moved up, so I experienced less of that,” she said. “All those cycles that we could have been doing something else, something that furthered our career, that enhanced our career. Not only should we be changing this because it’s the right thing to do, there’s a business impact to this.”

Back outside in the snowy streets of Davos, women — and some men — paused to watch the display screens at the “Women at Work: Myth vs. Reality” exhibit that Proctor & Gamble sponsored — often ending with a woman smiling and nodding.

“The definition of leadership today is rooted in male behavior,” said Carolyn Tastad, Procter & Gamble’s North America chief and the company’s most senior female executive. “And everything we do is defined against a very narrow definition of what the standard is, or what normal is. We have to change that definition of normal.”