by Mine The Gap co-founder, Jessica N. Grounds
Sex discrimination, misconduct, and assault are nothing new in America. These abuses have played out throughout history. In the United States, we have seen cycles of exposure to the reality of this behavior and this most recent wave of stories is just the latest version.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, we had sweeping responses to rampant sex discrimination against professional women exemplified in the Amazon series Good Girls Revolt about the massive discrimination case brought on by 46 women at Newsweek. In the 80’s and 90’s, we had discussions about unfair and sexist practices in both government and business which led to federal and state laws aimed at protecting women. In each generational revelation, we see a similar pattern of inappropriate actions perpetrated primarily by men in power on women with less power. While our culture has become more aware and has responded to these offenses over time, we will continue to be plagued by these issues as long as American culture places a higher value on one sex over the other.
But the latest wave of sexual harassment accusations has exposed this ugly reality in a new way. We see the financial impact on business. We see the public perception fallout in politics. We see an American sports culture in which we revere saturated with abuse and violence. Looking at the practical business dimension of this behavior, companies, and organizations are facing tangible financial implications and long-term reputational damage that can be avoided.
Just this weekend, the Los Angeles Times outlined the financial impact comedian Louis C.K.’s sexual misconduct scandal is already having on multiple media companies, including Orchard and 21st Century Fox. We are talking hundreds of millions of dollars in contracts, distribution partnerships, and potential bankruptcy. In another example, the financial fallout will be staggering for the Weinstein Company in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. And these challenges are not by any means limited to the entertainment industry.
In tech, companies like Uber and SoFi are scrambling to clean up the mess that has been left by sweeping allegations of sexual misconduct, discrimination, and practices that allowed for a rampant toxic corporate “frat-house” culture. Uber has already lost massive market share to their primary competitor Lyft in the wake of these stories.
In the venture capitalist space, arguably one of the most male-dominated industries, story after story of investors and VC’s who took advantage of their power are shining a light on an industry that seems to have sex discrimination baked into its calculus. Recent research shows that for companies seeking VC funding, those run by men got 16 times more money than companies run by women.
Not only do these scandals represent public relations headaches that distract from the goals of the company, they represent real risk, real dollars and cents, and deep cultural problems that cannot be fixed overnight. So why are these companies simply hiring communications firms to deal with a messy press day, when they can be proactive and address these problems in a more meaningful way?
These issues can be addressed. But it requires culture change – and we know this is possible. It takes dedication and an awareness that a company is truly stronger when all of its talent can flourish and not be victimized. Moreover, the business case for doing this has been made again and again, with research showing that women improve innovation and complex decision-making and companies with more women in leadership make more money.
With any risk factor facing a company, why aren’t more companies looking at gender balance as a key imperative? They should be strategically working to build a corporate culture that doesn’t allow for one group to prey on another. This should not be simply seen not as an “HR” issue but as a competitive advantage and key strategic priority. All too often companies are sweeping these problems under the rug as though they will somehow resolve themselves. They are ignoring the variety of implications at a huge cost, both short and long-term.
If you are building a company with purpose, a strong vision, and goals to be successful – then building a culture that sees gender balance, awareness, and respect should be at the forefront. The behavior of your employees matters – at the top and at every level. Bottom line: even for the companies who are dense enough to only care about immediate financial returns (and there are a lot out there), ignoring this problem will continue to expose them to massive risk and jeopardize their financial future.