Leading in the Era of Me Too

Here are four things local governments can do to create more welcoming environments.

Mar 26, 2018 | BLOG POST

by Martha Bennett, assistant city manager, Portland, Oregon

Revelations in the Harvey Weinstein case and other allegations we learn about in the news have unleashed a flood of stories about people, mostly women, who have been sexually harassed. This issue is not restricted to Hollywood, Washington, D.C., a state capital, or the sport of gymnastics.

New research shows that 30 percent of women experience sexual harassment at work and close to 90 percent of young women ages 16 to 25 have been harassedat school, at work, or at another location in their communities. Men suffer too. About 1 in 10 men have been a victim of sexual harassment. Harassment is more likely for people of color and people who are lesbian, bisexual, gay, transgender, or queer (LBGTQ).


Even if they haven’t experienced harassment, nearly every woman I know has confronted sexism in the workplace. It is worse for women of color, disabled women, and LBGTQ professionals.

Unfortunately, the reasons that so many people are victims of sexual harassment are deep in modern culture. Our culture is full of stereotypes about men and women. Stereotypes pervade our language, media, movies, magazines, and jokes. They are ubiquitous in our schools, workplaces, and homes. Stereotypes create the conditions that allow discrimination and harassment to persist. 

As local government professionals, we can change those conditions and instead create equitable and inclusive workplaces. In my organization, we have committed to these four changes.

1. Hire women into management. A 2017 Harvard Business Review article overviews research that finds the No. 1 thing that can be done to stamp out harassment is to create gender balance in the management ranks. ICMA members know that we are far from gender balance. While we cannot control who elected officials hire for the top job, we can mentor, coach, and promote women into leadership in our own governments. I recommend reading the November 21, 2017, article by Dobbin and Kaleb in the Harvard Business Review.  

2. Learn and lead. There have been some amazing breakthroughs in research related to the human brain in the past decade, especially on bias. Understanding how stereotypes affect you is powerful because it helps you pause before you act on a stereotype. ICMA has highlighted speakers at its annual conference who have talked about the research into unconscious bias, especially Verna Myers at the 2015 conference in Seattle, Oregon. If you would rather read about the topic of bias, there are some great books, including https://www.goodreads.com/list/show/97385.Unconscious_Bias.

And, if you haven’t read the book Lean In, you should. It is full of pragmatic advice on ways to help women step into leadership roles. Once you and your management team have learned about both bias and ways to increase women’s leadership skills, you need to lead conversations about it.

3. Interrupt bad behavior. I read recently about a woman who received sexual pressure at an event only to have a coworker ask if she was okay after the interaction was over. Wow! How different would the woman's story have been if the coworker had intervened? We all should learn noninsulting ways to interrupt discrimination. This is an opportunity for local government managers to lead by example. We’ve used a training program called Ouch! (http://www.diversityinclusioncenter.com/ouch/index.html). This training has been a simple and pragmatic way to create a shared vocabulary and practice. In other words, we know what to do when we need to stop something inappropriate.

4. Walk our policy talk. A recent story on 60 Minutes highlighted the experiences of several women who reported sexual discriminationfrom minor harassment all the way to rapeduring their service in the U.S. Forest Service. Many of these women were retaliated against after their cases were investigated. I am willing to bet that this federal government agency has a whistleblower policy and an anti-retaliation policy that is not that different from the one in my organization. Our senior leadership team is looking at how we are doing in retaining employees who have reported discrimination and harassment. Are we actually doing what our policies say we will do? Are we really protecting whistleblowers and stamping out discrimination?

As local government managers, creating a welcoming and inclusive organization is one of the best things they can do for communities. Diverse and balanced organizations can be more creative, more efficient, and more effective.   

Related Resources 

Retaliation Claims in the Workplace. This 2016 article looks at the issue of retaliation claims and gives some recommendations for preventing this kind of behavior in the workplace. 

Internal Complaint Investigations. This PM magazine article from 2015 looks at some questions you need to answer when dealing with an internal complaint investigation. 

Eyes on the Prize. This PM magazine article from 2017 has good advice for career advancement that is also applicable to creating a more successful work environment.   



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