Marking a startling shift in how women are changing the rules of the power game, Time Magazine named The Silence Breakers the 2017 Person of the Year. While the last eighteen months has brought its share of turmoil, something special has happened: women organized, stepped forward, and brought a voice to expose the imbalance of gender power in business, politics, and society at large. It does make many wonder, would this uprising and its repercussions have happened if Hilary Clinton was elected? While we will never know the answer to that question, we do know this: women are sick and tired of waiting around for things to get better.
We all know someone
Last year, the White House under the Obama administration hosted the United State of Women Summit in Washington DC. Attendees were chosen based on their work in creating a better future for women and I was lucky enough to be one of them. The mood was jovial and every person I met felt like an old friend. As some of my fellow attendees and I were waiting in the security line, we heard a man’s voice booming through the speakers. He was talking about sexual assault on campuses. He said that one in five women are raped in the US and that same ratio holds true on college campuses around the country.
As I spoke with four of the women in line with me, we learned that all of us had been victims of sexual assault while we were in college. Five-for-five. Some went to people in authority for help, only to be shamed into silence while others kept quiet for fear of public shame. We agreed that the numbers reported do not reflect reality.
While it seems that every day brings a new allegation of predatory behavior by someone powerful or famous, the sad truth is that we have barely scratched the surface. And, while many of the predators are being held to account by their shareholders, boardrooms, and the public, the real catalyst for change is represented by the true power of women in America in 2017. Women account for 85 percent of all consumer-buying decisions contributing an astounding $15 trillion to the economy, hold more than 60 percent of all personal wealth, and nearly half of working women earn more than their husbands. The potential of women boycotting a brand holds far too many consequences for a company’s viability. The collective voices of women can no longer be ignored.
A tipping point or a temporary focus on the symptoms
Sexual harassment and violence toward women have long been accepted and accommodated as the status quo. It’s been happening since, perhaps, the dawn of time. From the ‘rite of passage’ that the casting couch represented to the snide remarks of ‘who did she sleep with’ when a woman gets promoted, society and the workforce have made it okay for power-players to abuse their positions.
As the Time article points out, the abuse is nothing new; the ‘reckoning’, however, has seemingly appeared out of nowhere. While some may see these last months as a tipping point for change, it could be argued that the recent public ousting of hated executives such as Weinstein or revered journalists such as Charlie Rose, are merely reactionary decisions to address the symptoms but have not changed the root cause.
Firing the serial sexual predators was the right move, but the bad behavior will restart if long-term changes to the system don’t happen. Women account for only five percent of CEOs in the S&P 500 while female founders received just two percent of venture funding. Despite the current economic power of women, the impact should be greater; the World Economic Forum estimates that it will take over 200 years to achieve gender parity.
Accelerating the slow journey to the promise land
While we have a long way to go, there have been changes in the last months. The shift toward believing and openly supporting the victims of sexual assault has been a welcome change. Technology applications such as Lighthouse and Callisto have been developed to enable college students to report assault, and find the help and support they need. While these tools may not change sexual predatory behavior, enabling witnesses and victims to report sexual assault has the potential to stop repeat offenders and provide much needed evidence in criminal and civil legal cases.
The road ahead is long, winding, and full of potholes and mountains. Rather than hoping it will take far less than two centuries to accommodate equal power among the sexes, let’s learn from the silence breakers and come together for the power of good. We live in transformational times where positional power is at odds with the millions marching in the streets, demanding that women’s voices be heard. Transformation is happening because finally, we are seeing that leaders are not leaders unless followers enable them to be. The power shift is slow but it has begun.