Sexual harassment, power and hierarchy


Sexual harassment has again been in the news in that last week – this time focused on the Australian film industry. Whether it is sexual harassment or bullying or intimidation – all these behaviours result in people being diminished and their potential being unrealised.

There are two issues within this that are relevant to all leaders in all industries and they are both related to culture (values and unconscious assumptions) or the context. Below, you will also find two great videos that further explain each of these issues.

1. Being aware of our natural human tendency to scapegoat one individual for a cultural or systemic failure.

No matter what the specific issue may be, sexual harassment, bullying or poor performance, it is natural for us to blame an individual for the problem; when in fact a part of the problem is always the context within which that individual works.

For example, in the case of Craig McLaughlin, his alleged behaviour, like that of Harvey Weinstein, was apparently known of by many people. It was not condoned by these people, but they seem to have stepped passed it.

“The standard you walk past is the standard you accept.” Lieutenant General David Morrison

I am not saying that the individuals concerned bare no responsibility. I am saying that those in who aim to exercise leadership (that’s all of us – right?) also bare some responsibility. Who said, “Stop it!”?

The culture and leadership enabled the alleged behaviour.

2. Bullying and harassment can be viewed as symptoms of power differentials embedded within the hierarchy.

I have written previously written about the ways in which a hierarchical structure can diminish trust within an organisation.

An important element of a hierarchy is the difference in power between different layers of the hierarchy. If I have power over your job security and/or future job prospects, then it stands to reason, that if I make unreasonable demands of you, you might acquiesce to those demands. And how do hierarchies, with their power differentials, sit comfortably within a society that calls itself a democracy?

Richard Wolff, in the video below, explains this further employing systems thinking principles.

3. We can all do better!

Let’s lift the bar! I think you would agree that we can all do better in this sphere of endeavour. None of us wants our individual potential diminished by the unthinking boorish behaviours of another person and I don’t believe that many people deliberately set out to do harm to others either.

You may not be able to directly change the structure of the organisation you work within, but you can reflect upon and influence your relationships with other people and the way you work with them. Changes in your relationships will change the informal organisational structure in ways that may be more important than the formal structure on the wall.

Let’s hold the mirror up to ourselves as a first step:

  • In what ways may your behaviour be impinging on the wellbeing of others?
  • What behaviours are you stepping past because it is easier to ignore and justify them?

I would love to hear what you think about this issue. Email me here.

P.S. The image for this blog is a predator in action. I do not intend for this image to convey the message that it is natural for a human predator to prey upon other weaker people – in fact, I am arguing exactly the opposite.