Hollywood often uses movies to hold a mirror to society and set the topic of popular conversation. These past few weeks the tables have turned, with society scrutinizing the actions of Hollywood.
At present nearly eighty women have come forward with allegations of sexual assault and sexual misconduct against film producer Harvey Weinstein. Testimony from those accusers have inspired other victims of sex crimes to come forward with a torrent of allegations against celebrated and powerful celebrities such as Kevin Spacey, Ben Affleck, Ed Westwick, James Toback, Mark Halprin, and Jeremy Piven. The list grows by the day. Before them, Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly were ousted from their seemingly invincible perches at Fox News for harassing colleagues. Beloved comedian Bill Cosby has had his reputation ruined by a litany of corroborated sexual assault allegations. Even President of the United States Donald Trump has been accused of sexual misconduct by 15 women, including several from the Miss USA and Miss Teen USA franchise of beauty pageants, which he owned.
How does this repeatedly happen? In the face of initial allegations this year, many of the accused sought to silence their accusers, discredit the stories, and minimize the offense. Once the corroboration of other victims this time around made such deniability impossible, the accused often claim that what they did was normal for the time in which it was done. “Didn’t these actresses want the part?”, they asked, answering the door in their bathrobe. “Times were different.” “What about Bill Cosby? Or Bill Clinton?” That this whataboutery may have entered the discourse through its greatest practitioner Donald Trump, is never an excuse, even when it’s employed by its most prominent practitioner, Donald Trump. These men knew what they were doing was wrong, but they felt empowered to objectify, dehumanize, and violate others because they knew they were in a position of power and would likely get away with it.
What have we learned from this flood of allegations? The first is that sexual assault, even in elite institutions, is more rampant than previously understood. This should be a wake-up call to us all. Hollywood is not that different than HBS. Second, those who believe that such behavior is rare need to recognize the privilege they must have to be oblivious. Obliviousness to the threat of workplace sexual harassment is likely a privilege few women have. Men at HBS need not feel defensive; sea changes happen in cultural movements when bystanders become allies, giving men an active and important role to play. If there is any direction we can err in taking the organizations we will one day lead, it is in over-correction. Third, the women who have come forward are among the most powerful in the world, and yet many of them only felt comfortable saying something many years later and after someone else pointed the first finger. Imagine all the stories we will never read in headlines of all the powerless people who suffer away in silence, afraid that in seeking a reprieve from their torment that they will not be believed, that no one will care, or that they will be punished in reprisals. Lastly, we learned yet again, that power does not correct character flaws — it exacerbates them. In each of the cases mentioned above, an alarming number of people were aware of what was going on but made excuses for the perpetrators due to their successes or talents. Think how many brilliant careers we were deprived of seeing in the entertainment industry because those women were unwilling to do what those like Harvey Weinstein said was necessary to get ahead.
Every single one of these allegations is revolting; these abhorrent crimes are totally unacceptable of anyone who seeks a spot in the hearts of the public, or any position of leadership. As future leaders, HBS students need to acknowledge that sexual harassment and sexual assaults are societal problems, and that rooting out their causes and punishing offenders will become major responsibilities we must accept when running institutions.
Harvard Business School in its Required Curriculum Courses Leadership in Organizational Behavior (LEAD) and Leadership and Corporate Accountability (LCA) provides students with case studies of harassment in the workplace and challenges them to see how they would respond to such difficult conversations. These are important skills to both teach and learn. In our experience, students might arrive at the correct answer in the LEAD and LCA classrooms, but might not take that lesson into other classes or live them in their personal lives. How often have we heard a section mate justify a questionable business practice in class because that is just how things were done at their previous employer? When at a pre-game if one section mate were to make an unwanted pass on another, how quickly would the actions be excused by the alcohol? When at work after graduation, if we see supervisors dating subordinates, how likely are we to recognize the ethical dilemma? How likely are we to say something?
We believe that to meaningfully stand against sexual violence and harassment, students live these values through their actions. As future leaders in business, non-profits, and government, we are responsible for ensuring that every employee, colleague, and customer has the ability to lead fulfilling careers safe from the fear of sexual harassment.