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Would you speak out about inappropriate behaviour or bullying at work? Why most women don’t.

“So who here would like to fu#% Jane* tonight?”   This is the example one woman gave me to illustrate the culture of bullying and harassment in her team. It happened at a sales dinner with her all-male colleagues and two male clients. The question emerged in the restaurant, after dinner and the consumption of an abundance of alcohol (for the record, three of the men said “yes” before she got up and walked out). 

As is so often the case, Jane didn’t leave the organisation when this incident happened.  She didn’t report it.  And she says other events “even worse than this” take place in this company, one of Australia’s most respected brands, on a regular occurrence.

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But why would an intelligent, educated woman stay working in an environment like this?  Why not report it? Or leave? And why wouldn’t she blow the whistle on these behaviours which were so clearly in breach of the organisation’s policies and values, not to mention the law?

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I think it comes down to three main reasons:

  1. Women quite rightly worry that if they make waves their career will be negatively impacted. Our sphinxx research confirms this, with one in five women believing their promotional prospects would be negatively impacted if they raised concerns about gender equity in their workplace, while 16% believe there would be a negative impact on remuneration/bonus and 33% believe there would be a negative impact on reputation;
  2. Our society still judges women who speak out on issues like this.  The media feeds the opinion so often held that “she must have done something to deserve it”… and they hound any whistleblowers like Kirsty Fraser-Kirk in the David Jones case .
  3. Within many organisations, we make it too hard for women to speak out and report incidences like this.  The process itself is often difficult and too often skewed towards the onus of the woman to prove breaches of policy and the law, particularly in otherwise high performing teams. And it lacks the sensitivity it so often deserves.

The result?  A perception of apathy, or acceptance by women which is usually simply untrue.

I like this TED.com clip by Dave Meslin because it points out how dangerous it can be to confuse apathy with inaction for reasons of frustration, fear or fatigue. 

And I think there’s some important food for thought for employers of women in this… about the policies and practices we assume are in place and in effect in our businesses, but which are yet to be embedded within behaviours.

Now I don’t think for a minute that Jane is off the hook here.  Yes it’s tough to speak out, but without understanding what’s actually going on in an organisation, it’s hard for leadership to drive cultural change.  I know the CEO of the company where Jane works and I know he would never endorse this kind of behaviour.  But I actually think CEOs have a tough time finding out what’s really going on in their business.  And therefore it’s hard for them to make change happen.

Your thoughts?  What advice might you offer Jane? Have you been in a situation like this and if so, how did you respond?

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"The only moment we ever really have is this one - celebrate it. Happiness isn't in the future or the past but in the awareness of the present." - Anna McPhee

Anna's words are how she lived her life. She has been an amazing inspiration, a wonderful support, a gracious mentor to me throughout my career. So many of us counted her as a girlfriend to look up to, and her legacy will live on in the many women she has inspired to live their very best life.

I will miss her.

Sending condolences to Reggie, Anna's beautiful mum Trish and adoring sisters, and all of her extended family.

Vale Anna Marsali McPhee (1970 - 2017)
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