Picture this: You’re a Chief Communications Officer of a major Fortune 500 company on business trip to Europe, in a room full of American and European colleagues, and upon making a strategic recommendation an American man turns to you and says: “Good suggestion, especially since your lucky to be here since you don’t have a penis.”

Or maybe you’re a senior executive at a top PR agency, and notice that the ideas and analysis you used to form the strategic approach to your global business plan also appeared in a male colleague’s regional plan — to the high praise of the CEO, who was well aware of what you had originally proposed. Says the executive who experienced this, “Even when I pointed this out, he still got credit for producing such a ‘smart plan.’ Such an infuriating situation, but that was the culture at the firm.”

Another female senior communications executive feels similarly, “I wish I could count the number of times…at work where being friendly is mistaken as a ‘come on’ if you’re a woman, but not a man. The actual circumstances [range from] using business analogies about shopping or shoes because in the individual’s mind I couldn’t possibly understand a business analogy, to having someone explain something in sexual terms —’sometimes you need change; it’s like if you’re married and only have sex in the missionary position…’”

As appalling as they are, these are not one-off examples, but rather something women in all industries deal with on a regular basis. In fact, a study recently published in PRWeek demonstrated quite clearly that sexual and gender-based harassment and bias are indeed an issue in PR and marketing:

  • More than 50 percent of respondents have been sexually harassed
  • Seventy-three percent didn’t report it
  • Of those who did report it, 53 percent said nothing happened to the perpetrator
  • Only 41 percent of companies have clearly communicated guidelines for reporting harassment such as a confidential independent phone line.

None of this is surprising. Truly, who would be so arrogant or ignorant to think that people in any industry — including communications — are immune?  In fact, it may be a little surprising that it has taken the communications industry so long to talk about these issues and challenges.

Thanks to #MeToo and Time’s Up no one can deny that sexual, gender-based harassment and bias are problems. The lingering question is what to do about them. Earlier this year I wrote about the need to change the conversation, which we are seeing in real time, but to really make an impact, you also need to re-examine your internal culture.

For sure, trainings around sexual and gender-based harassment have proliferated in the months since the hashtags emerged — and that’s really important. But mandatory trainings once or twice a year will not move the needle on culture change — that takes a lot of very intentional work.

Frequent and open conversations help create an environment where people feel they can come forward not just with complaints, but when they need advice on handling a situation or to ask questions they know are not “PC” without feeling like they pulled the pin on a hand grenade. In other words, a safe space for discussion (aka, communication).

The ideal workplace operates with a culture of respect for all regardless of gender, title, race, sexual orientation, etc., and has a true open-door policy. A workplace where people feel comfortable reporting abuse and/or speaking up if they see abuse — and know in either case that there will not be retribution.

To achieve this, you need to:

1)     Expand your stakeholder base. Work cross-functionally to engage directly with employees and employee resource groups on these issues, and make sure the company is true to its values and brand promise is a good way to start to achieve this aspirational environment.

2)     Focus on transparency. Talk to teams about what you’re doing to ensure you create a value-based culture. Keep employees informed about what’s being done to build a safe and positive work environment.

3)     Be mindful not to “reward” behavior that demonstrates gender bias. The stories above were less about “sex” and more about the perceived weakness based on being a woman. This is more common than you think and while not explicitly studied by PRWeek, a significant factor in female executives’ experiences.

Tempting as it is to put a strong policy in place, conduct a thorough training and wait for people to come forward, there’s a lot more to combating and preventing sexual and gender-based harassment and bias. The commitment has to be real as Katy Robinson wrote recently for IPR, “Ultimately, employees’ attitudes toward an organization’s reporting system stem from the relationship, culture and conversation the organization has.” I would add that it has to be significant, start at the top, and align with the company’s brand promise and values. If that’s not an option, your efforts will likely be futile.

One of the female senior executives I spoke to said it best: “I think top leadership has to be willing to say that someone was terminated because they did not reflect acceptable behaviors for dealing with men, women or diversity in the workplace. Many of these behaviors are ingrained in people and training is not going to change that. In many instances… people aren’t even aware of their racism or sexism. Only when companies become overtly intolerant of this behavior will things change. For too long the ‘club’ has protected its members … it makes the aggrieved doubt themselves and pushes them further into the background.”

Jane Randel, co-founder of Karp Randel LLC, a consultancy designed to help corporations, foundations and individuals achieve their business and personal goals while making a positive impact on society. Follow her on Twitter @JaRandel.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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