Sexism, Racism and the Dynamics of Power

Four men whose careers have been disgraced by sexual harassment episodes, clockwise from top left: Matt Lauer (, Harvey Weinstein (Business Insider),
Judge Roy Moore (NBC news), Senator Al Franken (ABC news)

A lot continues to be written and discussed about racism, defined as “the belief, often accompanied with behavior, that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race.” And with the latest slew of sexual harassment charges against well known business, political and entertainment leaders, sexism is once more on top of minds. A good definition of sexism is “attitudes or behavior based on traditional stereotypes of gender roles, including discrimination or devaluation based on a person’s sex or gender, as in restricted job opportunities, especially such discrimination directed against women.”

But the main other ingredient that is critical to discussing both racism and sexism is the “power dynamic.” The real problem is when people in power use that power to degrade and unfairly treat either individuals or entire groups of people.

Let’s first look at sexism and sexual harassment. I would assert that if an entry level or lower salaried man sexually harassed a co-worker or client, they would immediately be fired. But when it is senior executive or top performer in an organization, so often the violation is minimized, excused or never addressed. The Human Resources professional who receives an allegation of sexual misconduct by a senior executive may be afraid to investigate. They may believe that the senior executive could quickly negatively impact their career or job. They say, “We can’t go after that executive – he is far too powerful.” Or when the top salesman makes a sexual move on a younger junior colleague in the office, the excuse is, “Well, he is the top performer, we need him.”

Drastic actions must be taken to address sexual misconduct by those in power by boards of directors and the Human Resources profession. See my blog, “Five Provocative Recommendations to Address Sexual Harassment in the Workplace.”

Second, let’s look a racism, especially institutional racism, which “occurs specifically in institutions such as governmental bodies, corporations and universities where systemic policies and practices within the institution have the effect of disadvantaging certain racial or ethnic groups.” See my blog on personal and institutional racism that includes examples.

The disproportionate arrest and incarceration of black men indicates that institutional racism may very well be a part of our justice system. (Photo courtesy American Renaissance)

In this case, it is not one individual in power exploiting their position to mistreat another, but instead it is societal power. In our nation, where the white majority has been in control of almost all of our institutions, it is easy to set up systems and structures that disadvantage minority populations. And this can include deliberate institutional racism (like the Jim Crow laws of the past) or unintentional racism due to lack of awareness of the needs of other groups. Therefore, it is critical for the majority group in power to have open and honest dialogues with all constituent populations in setting up systems and structures, and to continually educate themselves on all forms of diversity.

Hopefully with deliberate, thoughtful, strong actions we can continue to progress in addressing racism and sexism, and hold leaders accountable who abuse their power. This will lead to a stronger nation and economy where everyone is valued, treated fairly and can contribute their very best.

Five Provocative Recommendations to Address Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

Sexual Predators can attack in a variety of places, but as an HR professional, I am most disconcerted about abuse in the workplace.

The slew of women coming forward and sharing their experiences with director Harvey Weinstein’s sexual harassment, followed up by the “me too” social media campaign where millions of women have like wise shared being victims of sexual predators, has truly opened up the discussion around this sensitive topic. Women have been sharing their horrific experiences at the hands of sexual predators in various settings – at home, on the streets out in public, while on dates and even in the workplace.

As a human resources consultant, I find the stories of unaddressed sexual harassment in the workplace particularly upsetting. Women face tremendous risks, placing their livelihoods in jeopardy by reporting sexual harassment in the workplace, especially if it is at the hands of a powerful executive.

One of my close friends posted on Facebook in her “me too” entry:

When I reported the incident and spoke to the woman in HR, her response to me was : ” Oh, I know him…he would never do that!” A report was never filed.

Recently another close friend who I used to work with, an outstanding sharp junior executive, shared of an ongoing pattern of abuse from a senior executive who was so powerful that HR was slow and hesitant to address it. The result was early retirement and needing counseling for depression.

The number of women coming forward to report the abuse at the hands of film producer Harvey Weinstein is astounding. (photo – Business Insider)

Just maybe it is time for some drastic “out-of-the box” measures in corporate America to address this epidemic. Here are my five provocative recommendations:

1) All corporate boards of directors should institute strong policies that dictate that any sexual harassment charge be taken very seriously and investigated thoroughly, especially those against senior level people. And boards must personally take on this critical task and not delegate to internal management.

2) All corporate boards of directors should institute strong policies that protect all human resources practitioners from retaliation for thoroughly investigating workplace harassment charges, especially those against senior level people.

3) Any senior executive proven to have engaged in sexual harassment should be immediately discharged with all stock options and retirement benefits revoked. And to go a step further, those financial resources could be denoted to organizations addressing sexual abuse and harassment.

4) Any HR practitioner who does not take a harassment charge seriously and tries to minimize, excuse it or refuse to investigate it should have their SHRM (Society of Human Resource Management) certifications (PHR – Professional of Human Resources) or SPHR (Senior Professional of Human Resources) revoked permanently, and even revocation of SHRM membership should be considered.

5) Any privately held companies without boards of directors that perpetrate a culture of harassment as acceptable or with boards who do not take the first two recommended actions above should be “blacklisted” by SHRM as “HR unfriendly companies.” SHRM should strongly discourage HR practitioners from working for them, thereby cutting these entities off from building professional HR organizations. Also boycotts against doing business with those companies or buying those companies goods or services could be encouraged by women and men who support fair treatment of women.

With the stunning amount of sexual abuse now being publicly exposed, how can we justify not taking strong action?