‘She’s Not Laughing’: At Davos, Taking on Sexual Harassment

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Davos: Can Society Combat Sexual Harassment?

This World Economic Forum panel, developed in partnership with The New York Times, explores how to call out abuses of power and support women in leadership roles. Elisabeth Bumiller, the Washington bureau chief for The Times, takes part in the discussion.

By THE NEW YORK TIMES on Publish Date January 23, 2018. Photo by Markus Schreiber/Associated Press… Watch in Times Video »

Looking back on nearly three decades in the tech sector, Peggy Johnson recalled how she and other women used to steer clear of leering colleagues by taking the long way to their desks, and how they felt pressured to laugh at inappropriate jokes in the office.

But during a panel discussion on sexual harassment and the role of gender in workplace power, held on Tuesday at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Ms. Johnson, an executive vice president at Microsoft, recounted with emotion how her daughter, who recently entered the tech industry, has a different attitude.

“She’s not laughing,” Ms. Johnson said.

The panel, created in partnership with The New York Times, took place at a global gathering known more for its extravagant parties and elite guest list than its discussions of gender dynamics. But powerful men have tumbled from their perches in droves since sexual misconduct allegations against the movie mogul Harvey Weinstein were published in the fall.

Elisabeth Bumiller, the Washington bureau chief for The Times, moderated the wide-ranging discussion. Panelists spoke about millennials demanding transparency and accountability from future employers, about social media amplifying and empowering whisper networks and about the need for organizations of all sizes and types to elevate more women into leadership roles.

“This is not an issue that one sector can challenge and tackle and resolve,” Maryam Monsef, Canada’s Minister of Status of Women, said of the need to work across various industries and governments. “The only way we’ll get there is if it’s a cross-sectorial approach.”

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Winnie Byanyima, the executive director of Oxfam International, said that the power imbalance between genders will never be righted if women remain economically unequal to men. Female laborers, such as domestic workers, garment makers and factory employees assembling smartphones in developing countries, “are the bottoms of the supply chains of big business,” kept down by social norms that “justify their economic exploitation,” she said.

“The C.E.O.s who are here, these are their employees,” Ms. Byanyima said to the audience. “The private sector has an important role to play — they can use their factories, how they source their products, how they advertise” to empower women.

Public service efforts, like the Ad Council-supported “It’s On Us” campaign about preventing sexual violence, can help, according to Lisa Sherman, the nonprofit group’s chief executive. The Ad Council recently joined with David Schwimmer, the actor and producer, to make videos showing re-enactments of real accounts of sexual harassment to educate viewers about appropriate behavior.

Teaching empathy to students is another strategy, said the panelist Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Men tend to gravitate toward an aggressive, “top-down Machiavellian” understanding of power, but the more collaborative, evenhanded style of leadership associated with women has been gaining momentum, he said.

“What’s happening worldwide is that the model of power is changing,” he said, calling it “a revolution” that is “reconceptualizing sexual dynamics.”

But some worried about reconciling problematic legacies of the past, like revered leaders’ reputations for philandering, with the standards of conduct now being embraced. From the audience, Rick Goings, the chief executive of Tupperware Brands, asked the panelists if society should consider reinterpreting stories of historical figures “who were actually not legends — they were predators.”

Ms. Byanyima acknowledged that many nation-builders were known to mistreat women.

“I don’t think it’s helpful to go dismantling the past, but you can refuse to honor aspects of it that you don’t believe in anymore,” she said. “Leadership is so defined by men, and we need to revise that — we need to be able to say that the people we honor are not the conquerors, but the peacemakers.”

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