What Does It Take?
Note that names have been changed and the story adapted to protect the women who came forward and the confidentiality of the group.
Nearly ten years ago, a private sector organization asked me to investigate morale problems with their staff in one of their operations. After a few focus groups that allowed some initial framing, we began a series of individual interviews. The second client alluded to some problems with her manager - a man - but they were vague and didn’t even rise to the level of allegation.
By the fifth interview, the earlier comments could not be ignored.
Shelly tried mightily to keep it together, though I could sense something was amiss. It was when I asked about the manager that a slight tremble appeared on her lips. Slowly, she began to disclose the sexual misconduct to which she had been exposed. Before long, the trembling was much worse, and tears cascaded down her face. Multiple times I urged her to breathe, and we had to stop several times so she could take a break.
By the time Shelly was done, there was reason to believe her manager was a serial abuser, and a very savvy one. It also became clear that another man, the second in command, while not an abuser, had been complicit in covertly enabling the behavior.
Eventually, there were five different women willing to bring the issue forward. One of them was preparing to go to the local newspaper because she believed most of management was complicit.
After talking to my mentor, it was clear there were systemic problems, and it was necessary to quickly go up the managerial chain.
The senior leader I approached was incredulous that there could be such trouble in his operations without his knowledge. He asked about the credibility of the accusers. I told him that at least two showed signs of trauma, that both were already in therapy, and that I had a referred a third to their employee assistance program. Furthermore, I told him that with the emotions they displayed, I found them all to be quite credible.
Fortunately, this leader took the matter seriously and immediate action occurred. An internal process took place that resulted in the validation of the accusations and the removal of the two male managers.
In the years since, I've spoken to a number of people about such situations. While I’m not so presumptuous to think I am an expert, there are several key lessons that parallel what we have seen with #MeToo.
First, offenders and perpetrations are often covert, and many are quite subtle. Also, those who perpetrate are savvy enough to sufficiently conceal their behavior, and to present a different face to others. The result is that the behaviors get normalized by everyone. As one woman told me, “It’s hiding in plain sight.” And as another acknowledged, “I was overlooking it too. I even told a new employee about how to work around the guy rather than confronting it.”
Because it is normalized - and because we don’t speak openly about the perpetrations and patterns - everyone assumes that everyone knows and that leaders and managers are knowingly complicit. In fact, my personal experiences suggest there are several common responses as things come to light. First, from those who have been victimized who can be quite surprised they are not alone. Second, from leaders who invariably are mystified how something so problematic is not known.
Of course, let’s be honest: there are all kinds of avoidances, minimizations and justifications, none of which are to be condoned. While the misconduct may be normalized, that does not make it right in any way. All it takes is a few conversations with women who have been injured to be convinced of this.
Yet here is the greatest lesson, and what makes #MeToo different. Once light is shed on the problem, once it becomes personal and no longer some distant problem for others, everything is altered. When fathers find out their young daughters are being sexualized, when brothers discover their sisters have been perpetrated, when men realize some of their best female friends have been mistreated and sometimes violated, and when husbands discover their wives have been hiding shameful experiences - suddenly it cannot be ignored.
When women give a collective voice, they are less likely to feel ashamed and alone. They cannot so easily be overlooked or ignored.
I know there are those who will read these thoughts and retreat into any number of familiar and historical patterns. There is still so much to be done, and yet, the tide has turned. The genie cannot be forced back into the bottle, thus the magic of reformation must come to pass. It will take time, and the change will be different in each and every circumstance.
That’s what is different now. That’s why there is a dramatic shift in the speed with which allegations are addressed and actions taken. When finally enough voices speak loudly, leaders must follow, the culture must change, and the result will be greater freedom for all.
When someone else’s situation becomes personal and relevant, we can no longer make them into “other”, and no longer pretend it is not a matter for our concern.
When we make contact, it becomes personal. We are then forced to see and to care. Action becomes inevitable. Change then follows.
Seeing True™ - A Postscript
One of the women who had been perpetrated has stayed in touch with me over the years. She recently contacted me to let me know she was doing well, and that she often sees some of the other women though they have all moved on in a variety of ways. They are collectively optimistic. They have seen the power when their voices are joined, and the problem is no longer hidden in plain sight.