18/10/2017 10:57 BST | Updated 18/10/2017 12:24 BST

Why Sexual Harassment Is No Laughing Matter

Until the gender imbalances across all organisations and industries is addressed, women will continue to be seen as 'lesser' contributors and any questionable behaviour by the most powerful men at the top less likely to go challenged.

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Sometimes it takes a defining moment for things to change. For beliefs and attitudes that were once accepted to become unaccepted. For blind eyes to start seeing.

For some, the moment when sexual harassment in the workplace became unacceptable is when the serial offences alleged to have been committed by Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood movie producer, were laid bare in the New York Times (after other media outlets declined to break the story and the police decided not to press charges despite recorded evidence.)

For others, it will be the unprecedented moment when the industry body behind the Oscars expelled Weinstein in order to: "Send a message that the era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behaviour and workplace harassment in our industry is over."

In reality, it was the moment when tasteless jokes made by James Cordon, at the expense of Weinstein's alleged victims, attracted criticism instead of laughs.

How 'humour' is used to undermine sexual harassment

Sexual harassment jokes failing to rouse a laugh is a defining moment because for too long humour has been used to belittle the experience of those experiencing sexual harassment, with victims being told to "lighten up", "see the funny side" or "develop a sense of humour."

When Seth MacFarlane hosted the Oscars in 2013, he joked to the Best Supporting Actress contenders, "Congratulations, you five ladies no longer need to pretend you're attracted to Harvey Weinstein."

The audience laughed back then. Today they wouldn't. As a result of so many high profile women speaking out, something fundamental has shifted and sexual harassment at work is no longer acceptable.

There are those who might argue that sexual harassment was never acceptable, but why then have two-thirds of 18-24 year olds been subjected to sexual harassment at work, according to the TUC, with 79% left feeling unable to tell their employer?

Why women hesitate to report sexual harassment

The actress and writer Emma Thompson has described an endemic system of "harassment, and belittling, and bulling," not just in Hollywood, but in other industries and everyday life that we've become used to.

Saying it's a system that means that virtually every woman has at least one story of sexual harassment to tell, "from being felt up on the tube to an older more powerful man lunging at them in a lift."

It's also a system which means the contribution of women to work and society has been belittled, including how much they get paid - female managers now earn £12,000 less a year than their male counterparts - and how much power they have. Last year there were more CEO's called Dave in the FTSE 100 than there were women, meaning that dubious comments and behaviours can often go dismissed as just being a bit of 'workplace banter'.

While the experiences supposedly dished out by Weinstein are clearly far worse than most of the derogatory comments made towards women in the workplace, both need to be addressed at the same time, because it's the derogatory comments that make women feel like they can't report what's going on for fear that they won't be taken seriously. Which is all too often the case when those in a position to help them have chosen to turn a blind eye by buying into the idea that the perpetrator is "too valuable to the business" or "too powerful to challenge."

What needs to change?

As Weinstein's demise shows, no one is too powerful to avoid being held accountable for sexual misconduct. With the mounting allegations against Weinstein putting him at risk of criminal convictions that could carry a 25-year jail sentence, his senior colleagues now have to consider if turning a blind eye to his predatory behaviour was really worth it?

Was a strategy that effectively amounted to a culture of corporate compliance, driving A-listers such as Angelina Jolie and Kate Winslet to vow never to work with the organisation again, such a good idea? Especially now that the many payouts made by Weinstein and Co., in return for the silence of victims, are to be investigated by the authorities. Forcing the company to consider having to sell and change its name amidst mounting allegations.

Can a strategy that puts the career of one individual over the wellbeing of so many others ever be justified?

I think not.

Now that employees have been empowered, not least due to the #MeToo movement, to become increasingly vocal about and intolerant of any sexual harassment, employers must fully embrace their duty of care to keep their employees safe and to ensure that they aren't being discriminated against.

By publicly educating all employees about the need for 'dignity at work', what it feels like to have this undermined and getting senior leaders to reprimand anyone who crosses the line, employers now have a valuable role to play in ensuring that sexual harassment no longer has any role to play in our society.

If Weinstein is to have any legacy, let it be the end to the days of employers turning a blind eye to sexual harassment and bullying of any kind.

Three ways to eradicate sexual harassment at work

1. Always take action

Even if it's the boss themselves that's the perpetrator, if you know of anyone sexually harassing others within the organisation, you have a duty to report it and if you work in HR, or have a responsibility to the victim, a duty to take action.

At the moment there is a vicious circle of victims not reporting behaviour and instead leaving the organisation, only for another unsuspecting victim to fill their place and for the problem to continue.

Only by challenging behaviours and allowing victims to see that their concerns are taken seriously and addressed will other victims be encouraged to come forward, so that any inappropriate behaviour can be identified and addressed.

If the perpetrator is senior or considered particularly valuable to the organisation, you may have to be resilient and persistent to identify someone who will take the issue seriously and use their influence to get something done.

2. Educate on dignity at work

Ensure managers and employees are publicly trained on what is and isn't acceptable and enlist someone senior who is prepared to hold difficult conversations with anyone found crossing the line.

As well as talking about sexual harassment, it can be helpful to broaden out the conversation to 'dignity at work' and educate people about what it feels like to have their dignity undermined on the basis of their sex, age or race.

Policies should be created to address harassment and bulling in all its forms, including how the company will deal with it. A key part of which must be to ensure that any unacceptable comments or behaviours are nipped in the bud, especially where they are being delivered under the pretext of 'humour'.

3. Allow women to progress

Critical to overriding a culture of sexism is addressing the lack of women in a position of power to challenge the status quo.

Less than 5% of Fortune 500 companies are headed by women and just 7% of the FTSE 100 CEOs are female, with female traits such as empathy, communication and compassion frequently dismissed as being 'weak' and less attractive, despite research showing that women-led companies perform three times better than those led by men.

Until the gender imbalances across all organisations and industries is addressed, women will continue to be seen as 'lesser' contributors and any questionable behaviour by the most powerful men at the top less likely to go challenged.