What We Need Leaders to Do, Say, and Be During #MeToo

Jennifer Brown | | , ,

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In this minisode, Jennifer shares her thoughts on the #MeToo movement and the overall connection to diversity and inclusion efforts. Jennifer discusses the role that men can play as allies in being part of the solution, and the important role that the workplace often occupies for diverse talent. She also reveals how women have often been left out of important mentorship opportunities, and how leaders can ensure that mentorship opportunities are more inclusive.

In this episode you’ll discover:

  • Why being well intended will necessarily lead to lasting change (2:00)
  • The role that men can play in being part of the solution (4:30)
  • The connection between #MeToo and other diversity and inclusion issues (6:30)
  • How companies and organizations are taking a stance (9:30)
  • The importance of the workplace for diverse talent (10:30)
  • The risks and rewards for leaders for speaking out (13:00)
  • Why women have often been left out of key mentorship opportunities (15:30)
  • How to make mentorship opportunities more inclusive (16:55)
  • The types of conversations that leaders need to be having (18:30)
  • The role of allies in the process (20:00)
  • The importance of envisioning a better future (24:00)

Listen in now, or read on for the transcript of our conversation:

DOUG FORESTA: Hello, and welcome to The Will to Change. As always, when we do these “minisodes,” I always tell you what you may notice that this is not Jennifer Brown, but this is Doug Foresta, the producer of The Will to Change. But, of course, Jennifer is with me. And we’re going to be talking about the Me Too movement, lessons, take-aways, and what is going on, and why now? Jennifer, thank you for joining me, welcome.

JENNIFER BROWN: Thank you, welcome to my own show. Yay! (Laughter.)

DOUG FORESTA: I know. I always enjoy welcoming you to your own show. It’s very fun.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know. (Laughter.) I love it.

DOUG FORESTA: I guess, where I’d start, this is such a big topic, obviously, so many places to go with it. The first question I want to ask you is: Why now? In other words, what do you think has happened that it seems like we’re experiencing a unique moment? Obviously, a lot of these issues have been going on for a long time. What’s your take on why this has all boiled up at this point in time?

JENNIFER BROWN: Well, we’ve experienced the awareness of the fact that we can’t take equality and equal voices for granted. It’s really hit many people hard in the recent year and a half or so because we cannot assume that progress is preordained. If you define progress as greater equality for all and greater access for all, better rights, equal rights—it’s not an assumed conclusion.

We’ve learned that the hard way in the last year and a half because of political leadership changes. And as a result, it’s been a big awakening for people to realize being well intended and believing generally in equality, or saying things like, “Well, I have daughters and I want a better life for them.” I don’t think anyone realized—women knew—but particularly maybe men didn’t know the depth and the extent of the incidences of hostile work environments and sexual assault.

This has just been a giant uncovering of the truth. The wind behind it, of course, started about a year and a half ago and built through the Women’s March, obviously, built through men waking up and saying, “I’m not okay with this.” I don’t know how you can say, “I didn’t know this was going on,” but I think when you think about the prevalence of sexual assault, many of us are still shocked anew when you really listen to the extent of it.

And the fact that the chances are a woman sitting to your right and your left are both sexual assault survivors, just the sheer numbers of it and the pervasiveness of it has been an important thing to talk about and acknowledge.

The question to me is: So what will we do about it? Is the onus still on women to fix their problem and that experience that happened to them and the damage from it, and how do you ever rectify the lost career opportunities and damage to our psyche and confidence? When something like that happens, especially early in our lives, how do we rectify that? The role of men in particular, and particularly if men have power and social capital and all the things that we talk about so much on The Will to Change, Doug, how are they utilizing that to make sure that this is routed out, that it doesn’t happen again?

My concern is that the attention that’s being paid to Me Too, because of further atrocities or bad news in the world, goes to the side, and we don’t really look at the systemic issues that led to this point.

I’ll say, too, that in organizations, many people have not felt they had a voice for so long, as we often talk about on The Will to Change. This is the anger that comes after being ignored, marginalized, or left out. It’s peaking because building inclusive workplaces is all about letting off steam, it’s all about the feedback that’s honest, flowing through an organization around, “Hey, why did I not get picked for that opportunity? I thought I was imminently qualified.” Why do I look around and not see anyone who looks like me if I’m a woman, person of color, or LGBTQ?

It’s reached a point where speaking up and not being listened to has reached a point of anger. That’s a human thing, but for me, this is the outcome of a lack of listening, empathy, inclusion practiced daily in workplaces. To the point where now there is no one giving anyone the benefit of the doubt. It’s become a very black and white, harsh moment.

It didn’t need to be this way—it didn’t. So many people will say, “Nobody’s been listening, nobody’s been listening.” This is the reckoning.

I do want to say, the circumstances in which this has been permitted to continue are the same circumstances that impact the whole diversity and inclusion conversation, which is that those in power are not aware of that power or utilize that power for ill. Sometimes they know it and will do it intentionally, but many times it’s unintentional, assuming that they work in a meritocracy and everybody has the same access to all the goodies and the keys to the kingdom. It’s not true.

We really need to have a conversation about power dynamics. I think that’s good. I think that’s where we need to be talking when it comes to gender parity.

DOUG FORESTA: You talked about how we can no longer assume in this day and age that progress is just a straightforward, up escalator. I’m asking you to have a crystal ball here, but I’ll ask this in a little different way in a moment. One of the dangers, like you said, is that there are shark attacks in Australia, and that becomes the next thing that we all focus on. Do you think that we can go back to the day before the Me Too movement? Or do you think that this has created such a seismic shift in our consciousness that there is no going back?

JENNIFER BROWN: I would say if it were in isolation, it may have less staying power. But when you stack it up, I think there’s been a movement in corporations to step forward and lead as a civic voice, as a social voice. This has been building for a couple of years. I’ve been chronicling it, whether it’s a CEO using his voice like Marc Benioff, Salesforce CEO, who threatened to pull thousands of employees out of Indiana because of the infamous cake story—where the baker didn’t want to bake the cake for the gay couple. As a straight, white man, he said, “No, not on my watch. I’m not going to put my employees in a state where this is the conversation, this is how they’re going to get treated.”

Whether it’s Disney’s response to the Pulse nightclub shooting. Millions of dollars and so many community service hours and such a galvanizing of the community to respond.

It goes on from there—like the NBA and all the sports teams and North Carolina with the bathroom bill.

There are companies, many of which are my clients, have issued statements about the Me Too movement internally and externally as well. These are the same companies that probably responded to the angst of all of their employees after the elections in 2016 and the fact that the truth is, I was getting calls from people who do what I do internally saying there were crying employees in their office. They had a line out the door of people who were heartbroken, and were so uncertain about their place not only in their employer, but in America.

These continue to be the companies, and often it is the voice of the CEO, but it’s usually approved by the board and everything goes through the channels. Sometimes maybe it doesn’t, maybe the CEO just says, “I need to say something, I need to write something, I need to release something to respond.”

We always talk about silence speaking volumes. At a time when companies are their employees’ biggest protectors, that is what we’re talking about here—literally protectors. If we think about immigration situations, literally.

Even more symbolically than that, the workplace is the place, in some cases—and I know there are some listeners, sadly, who don’t know what this feels like—the workplace is the place where you can bring more of your full self to your endeavors because your company may celebrate diversity and talk about it in such a specific, accurate, current, and contemporary way. You feel like you’re on the inside, they get you, they understand you. They address you with the right pronouns, they talk to you in the language that you understand, the leadership is doing its work. In an ideal situation, you work for that kind of company.

The voice of the leader in the private sector or any large institution, they’re going to lead this whole conversation. Yes, they’re communicating about Me Too. Some companies probably are saying, “This is an opportunity to let you know and re-communicate that we have a zero-tolerance policy. We know that this movement is happening, here are the hotlines you can call. We don’t want this occurring in our workplace.” They equip you with all the resources should you want to talk to somebody, should you want to tell the company. It’s really the company signing up for accountability. They’re saying, “We’re not going to brush this under the rug. We’re not going to move that manager into another unit and act like it never happened. We’re not going to blame the victim. We’re going to do the right thing.”

This is yet another opportunity in a string of opportunities we’ve seen in the last two years—actually going even further back to the police shootings and the response of companies to that. Two years ago, when all of that was happening, I was getting a lot of calls from companies saying, “Should we say something? What if we say something and then we need to say something about everybody else? Isn’t it a slippery slope? What are our lawyers saying?” There’s a lot of dialogue going on.

I can tell people, if it makes you feel better, whether or not your company makes the right choice, at least there’s dialogue. At least there are arguments going on. You have to know that those are happening, and whichever side wins, inevitably, most companies, their leadership, and their boards know that they have to have a bigger voice on behalf of their employees, and they have to stand up and throw their weight around, and they have started to do that with some serious economic results. It cost around $1 billion to North Carolina as a state because of companies who said, “We’re not going to hold our events here. We’re not going to bring our teams here. We’re not going to open our offices here.” That’s powerful stuff. It certainly helps me to see companies doing this because it underscores our message.

DOUG FORESTA: One of the things you talk about companies being worried about saying something, especially with the Me Too movement, we’re seeing the anger. The entire problem is the silence that creates the complicity, right?


DOUG FORESTA: Tell me if I’m off base here, but I would think you open yourself up as a company to so much more liability by being silent and doing nothing. Do you think that’s really the safe choice for companies right now to do nothing?

JENNIFER BROWN: I’m not sure there’s a winning strategy either way.


JENNIFER BROWN: You could also be really worried that this behavior has run rampant in your organization, and by inviting the truth, you could lose half of your leadership team. That’s what we’re talking about. I don’t know of any other economic or social movement—well, the recession—that might result in the extent of a restructuring like we may see in terms of the number of people, the amount of behavior that’s been occurring particularly amongst senior people. Unfortunately, at its heart, it’s a power conversation.

It’s a house-cleaning. It’s a tough time to be a male leader trying to lead on inclusion. If you really take that seriously and you don’t have any skeletons in your closet and you really want to continue to lean in as a man, it could be viewed as a very risky time to continue to do that.

Every talk I’m giving now, I’m saying we must not let dialogue stagnate, stop, or cease. We must continue to have dialogue, particularly between women and men. The sponsorship and pulling up female and other underrepresented talent is done largely by men, particularly white men, and those in power in companies. That’s how it happens. There’s no way around that because it is about sharing power.

How and when do you have your mentoring meetings? Is it okay if other people see you meeting of hours with a female protégé? These are the basic questions that have been asked. Sheryl Sandberg called it out for the first time in Lean In. It was the first time I realized that so much mentoring and support happens man to man—whether it’s on the golf course, a hunting retreat, fishing retreat, or off hours at the bar. Those are places where many people are not comfortable, for a variety of reasons, and those people are not privy to those very critical conversations that pull talent up. That offhand conversation you have with someone when you’re getting drinks after work. Somebody says, “Why don’t you take that job in Asia? I’ll put your name in, I’ll mention it, and it’s yours.” Literally, that took me ten seconds to say.

DOUG FORESTA: But that’s the danger, isn’t it? It takes courage for companies to respond in the way that you’re talking about. The question would be: Do you think some organizations or people are going to respond and say, “Well, we’re just not going to have women around. We’ll just go back to the old boys club, and we won’t have to worry about having this problem. Problem solve.” Right?

JENNIFER BROWN: Good luck with that. (Laughter.)

DOUG FORESTA: I know, but do you think that would be part of the danger? We need to have the courage not to retreat from male mentorship of women in a healthy, safe way.

JENNIFER BROWN: There’s a healthy version of that and an unhealthy version.


JENNIFER BROWN: The way it’s been done informally, usually man to man, has never been inclusive. It’s not to call out anyone to say you excluded on purpose, it’s more about the nature of where it happens and how it happens—it’s something that just changes the vibe. You’ll hear men say, “Having a woman on the team really changes the vibe.” I’ve heard things like this. It’s frustrating that people would choose to keep things the same to the exclusion of the opportunity that more diversity represents on your team in terms of your ability to develop better products and resonate more with your largely female customer or client base. Any company’s customer base is diversifying and becoming more female, majority female, or already is majority female.

If you persist to say, “Let’s just sidestep this whole thing and not do our work,” you will not be equipped—literally—to thrive in a marketplace that is going to be majority non-white and majority female now and particularly in the future.

That’s a risky strategy, for sure. If you choose to jump into the work, it’s hard, it’s really hard. It feels risky. Is it really risky? As long as it’s not creating a hostile work environment, we should still be having the conversations that feed inclusion. There’s so much terrain that can be explored safely. I don’t want people to take the message that none of that should be happening because I don’t want to say the wrong thing or I’m going to get in trouble or if I ask a question, someone’s going to feel offended or triggered. That is not where we want to go.

By the way, Doug, let me make another provocative point. We on the receiving end—and I say “we” as a woman and LGBT person—we’ve got to meet people halfway. This moment is also pointing out to me that whether we say we’re welcoming of men coming into women’s spaces in the workplace to learn or listen or be in the room, or straight allies coming into LGBT spaces or white colleagues coming into the spaces of people of color. We talk about that as our strategy—”we” meaning those of us who advise companies on what to do as the next step.

Those of us in the room, we’ve got to let our guard down a bit and trust others when they come into that space. That’s really hard in this moment because it’s kicking up all of this PTSD for so many people—literally.

DOUG FORESTA: Right. Right.

JENNIFER BROWN: And if you don’t have PTSD about it, you have a kind of collective PTSD as part of your gender, you have friends, and you can feel what it feels like. Even if it didn’t happen, we’re all feeling this. We’ve got to lean in, too, to say, “Not every man.” We have to lean in and say, “Having relationships across gender remains important.” I’ve got to not be—I don’t know what the word is, I guess “protective” of how raw I might feel about this should not change my career strategy in terms of making sure I’m getting the support I need from people who have influence.

DOUG FORESTA: I think it is important to remember that there are good men out there, right? Otherwise, what’s the alternative? It’s interesting because now I think on The Today Show, there are no men left. It’s all women.

JENNIFER BROWN: I know. (Laughter.)

DOUG FORESTA: There’s not one man left.

JENNIFER BROWN: That’s true, I hadn’t thought about that.

DOUG FORESTA: There’s just no one.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, goodness. The future is female.

DOUG FORESTA: Which is great, the future is female.

JENNIFER BROWN: No, I don’t think it’s to the exclusion.

DOUG FORESTA: Not entirely.

JENNIFER BROWN: No way. That’s not the right balance, either. Will we overcorrect for a while? I listened to this incredible podcast called Still Processing. It’s by two culture writers at the New York Times. They analyzed the Grammys. They watched the Grammys exclude the white male artist who’d actually sold the most albums technically from the finalist round. I’m not using the right words, but it’s interesting to see institutions try to correct and do it in a similarly awkward way. It’s the opposite of the original problem, which was maybe Oscars so white or Grammys so white.

Anyway, we have this interesting moment where we’re trying to find the middle. We’re trying to find that healthy way of being together. Clearly, the way I read it is we have some anger we’ve got to get out, we have some honesty to bring, we have some rebuilding of trust, and we’ve got to meet in a different way and figure out a different way to be with each other. I hate to get so existential, but that’s what it feels like.

DOUG FORESTA: That’s what it comes down to.

JENNIFER BROWN: It’s interesting, as a Q woman, somebody in the LGBT community, I feel, strangely, like I can sit in between all of this and hold it. I don’t know why, maybe it’s the experience of every day doing what’s called “code switching.” When you shift what you tell people about yourself or you’re presenting certain parts of yourself that you think are more or less appetizing to somebody else. It develops this exquisite sensitivity, emotional intelligence, empathy, and the ability to see other people. You have struggled to be seen, so the beauty in the struggle is that now you are able to hold that middle.

I wouldn’t want to move past that anger. That anger needs to be there and do its job, but I’m already focusing on the rebuild. Elizabeth Cronise McLaughlin, who was on our podcast, always says on Resistance Live, “We need to start working on envisioning the day when we do have an administration that embraces all of our diversity. What do we want that world to look like?” It’s an interesting twist to think about if you’re living in the now so intensely and you’re not spending an equal amount of time envisioning that next world that you actually want, then when it arrives—and I say “when,” not “if”—when it arrives, and you are given the pen to draw it, what do you want in that world?

I find it a profound question. I can get sucked into the moment right now just like everybody else and watch hours of MSNBC. But I’m less clear on what the post story is going to look like, and what that post world is going to look like.

DOUG FORESTA: What a beautiful question and challenge to leave our listeners with as we close this out.

It would be really interesting to come back to this, say, in six months or so and see how the world has changed.


DOUG FORESTA: Hopefully.

JENNIFER BROWN: Oh, my goodness. (Laughter.) Doug! Hang in there, Doug!

DOUG FORESTA: Exactly. Exactly.

JENNIFER BROWN: Keep leaning in.

DOUG FORESTA: Thank you so much. You really have expressed this and explored it with such clarity and insight. I agree with you, you’re able to do it in a way where you can see on both sides for men and women, and I think that’s a very unique thing to be able to do.

Thank you, Jennifer, so much for sharing your words of wisdom today on this important topic.


DOUG FORESTA: Thank you.