Is society normalising sexual harassment?

Corporate Citizenship

In light of the President’s Club scandal and the #metoo movement, sexual harassment has rapidly risen up the corporate agenda. More cases of misconduct – affecting more industries – seem to be emerging by the day. Last week, we attended a debate on sexualisation and exploitation in the workplace, specifically in the hospitality sector, organised by EventHuddle.

A key theme that arose from the discussion was the ‘normalisation’ of such behaviour. Panellist Ieva Gudaite, a former employee in the hospitality sector cited that on hearing the word “hostess”, we (society) are already thinking there’ll be something more than ‘hosting’ taking place as women, particularly in hospitality and events, are told to dress a certain way which plays a part in how society perceives them.

Regarding a recent undercover news story detailing a gambling tradeshow that employed pole dancers as part of the exhibitions, employment solicitor Tess Barrett made the point that context was paramount. This should be the catalyst to put an end to the normalisation of sexualising people.

Within the story, Alison Digges, managing director of gaming brands at high street bookmaker Ladbrokes comments this “…is a symptom of the problem that not enough women are seated at top tables and driving decisions”. This is in addition to the need for companies to scratch beneath the surface and rebalance power that enables employees to raise concerns that may otherwise not be heard. This was highlighted by fellow colleague, Richard Phillips, in a recent blog. Tess suggested that in undercover stings such as the President’s Club and the gambling tradeshow, the journalists had already determined in their minds that they would return with a story, thus media portrayal can be an instigator to influencing societal perceptions. Should they too should be held accountable for their actions of responsible journalism, she suggested.

Are companies to blame?

Normalising sexualisation has become ingrained in society, from the use of women as entertainment to commercial advertising. Moderator Helen Moon, an events consultant, commented that the key lies in changing societal mindset “regardless of what people are wearing, it’s not an invitation to be harassed”. Melissa Gaffney, events and fundraising assistant to the third sector, called for event organisers and companies to do more to ensure that people are not looked upon as objects. She added that we all have a responsibility to be proactive, to speak up if we see misconduct. And companies have the same responsibility too.

Whilst no brand would ever want to garner negative publicity, companies can do their part by making sure their responsible business practices filters through every level to change behaviours. This is the opportunity for them to build and regain consumer trust through transparency and improve their performance that cascades through the entire business. Leaders, regardless of whether they are male or female, must engage and empower employees to remove the barriers that stifle change, and enable an internal dialogue that promotes the openness to speak up and act upon unethical and irresponsible behaviours.

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