This has not been a good month for men or women: The head of the
International Monetary Fund stands accused of sexually assaulting
a maid, which has brought to light other similar allegations against
him. There's Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY), whose name alone
became a running joke after he tweeted explicit messages and photos
to total (female) strangers (including, apparently, a teenager).
Finally, we have John Edwards, former presidential candidate,
indicted for possible misuse of campaign funds when he tried to hide
his mistress and their baby.
But, women, do not despair. Along with these tales of sexual abuse
and impropriety has come a very powerful blowback: intolerance of
these abuses, and the conversation we are all now having about sex and
Let's talk first of France's Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the French
reaction to his arrest. The French have been historically accepting
of DSK's bad behavior at the IMF and beyond. Word was, when
America had its sex scandals, Europeans would shake their heads and
wonder why we were hyperventilating about a little horseplay. After
all, even former French President Francois Mitterrand had both of his
families at his funeral. But instead French women have been coming out of
the sexual harassment closet, saying they should not have kept their
mouths shut. Like the teenager who said that for seven years she feared
the "notoriety of her well-known doctor in Nice" but now was willing to
file a complaint against him. This is a sea change, and a much needed
one if women are to be accepted into leadership alongside men.
Then there are our home-grown scandals. First, Anthony Weiner. His
wife -- the widely respected State Department deputy, Huma Abedin --
hasn't left him, but she also didn't stand beside at that painful news
conference. This is definitely a step forward for the spouse of disgraced
politicians. John Edwards, who had an affair with (and impregnated)
a campaign staffer, had the good will of his daughter by his side as he
left court last week, nothing more. His career and reputation are destroyed,
and I would guess that even his late wife would score better polling numbers.
Yes, we are disgusted. Still, with so much of the mess of sex in our faces,
I'm hoping for a silver lining for women's leadership. Traditionally,
one of the reasons women have not made it to the top of
corporations and boards of directors is the discomfort of the men they'd
have to work with. Sometimes, the men admit it. Only a week ago, I spoke
with a group of women leaders, many of whom serve on boards that are
actively seeking more women. One talked of a male board chair who admitted that,
while he liked the female names that were submitted for consideration,
he was reluctant to elevate women he didn't know, and therefore, just
"wasn't comfortable with."
After all, comfort demands familiarity, knowledge and contact. We
know what that means, don't we? The most recent study by the Center for
Work-Life Policy, The SponsorEffect, shows that "most senior men (64 percent)
avoid sponsoring junior women for fear of speculation of an affair." And 50% of
junior women are hesitant to have contact with senior men for the same reason.
Policies around office romance are often not clear, not known and/or not enforced.
This denies junior women the support that's critical to advancement in their
companies and to positions on the boards that look to the C-suite for recruits.
But I say, let's just talk about it. Let's get the discomfort on the table
and let's expose its seamy underbelly of sex. Let's discuss this ambivalence
and discomfort and replace it with respect and sponsorship, with healthy
relationships between senior partners and the women they're bringing along
in the corporation.
French Finance Minister Christine Lagarde will probably succeed
Strauss-Kahn to become the first woman to head the IMF; this will
undoubtedly change the serious hanky panky in the fund's offices that
has terrorized women there for a very long time. Norway's successful
legislation guaranteed that 40% of the seats at publicly traded
companies would go to women; countries throughout Europe and
beyond are following suit. You can't convince me these gutsy moves
won't change how the work gets done.
So, come on, people. This is a tipping point. It's time to stop tsk tsking
about the behavior of these men and to start using it for an
honest conversation that will move the ball (pun intended). Women
are only 15% of corporate boards in America, and we are 51% of the
population. I'm done with the notion of men not being "comfortable"
with women. As gender minorities in the top ranks, women have lived
with discomfort for decades. Really, guys. It's time to risk discomfort
and sponsor worthy women in corporate leadership. Just leave your
libido at home where it belongs and let them do their jobs.