"We've finally reached a tipping point to stand up to refuse to allow to be treated as anything less than equal," says Lauren Leader-Chivée, an activist and thought leader on diversity and women's issues-in the workplace. "That's a major change. Women have been galvanized."
Leader-Chivée is one of the individuals I was fortunate enough to interview for a series on the year ahead, Big Ideas for 2018, where I asked a number of my favorite award-winning marketing experts, authors, and other thought leaders -- as well as some of Firebrand Group's own digital strategy and branding experts -- to recommend one "Big Idea" that companies can take advantage of to get ahead in 2018.
Leader-Chivée's newly-released book, Crossing The Thinnest Line, argues that diversity is the single most undervalued and underleveraged economic asset in the US today. She cites the fact that women are 57% of today's college graduates, as well as the 4 million copies of Lean In sold, as indicators of how there have been major changes in terms of how women are perceived in American society. "The movement has been building for a long time; now, it's time to see how powerfully women will speak up on their own behalf in politics, entertainment, etc.," says Leader-Chivée. "With any luck, it's a movement that is here to stay."
What changed in 2017 that made women especially determined to be treated more fairly in 2018? According to Leader-Chivée, there hasn't been one specific tipping point. "It hasn't been one particular thing, and that's what is most interesting about it. A lot of people say it's a combination of the election and the #MeToo movement, but it's been growing for years." Recalling 2017 trips to the Women's Farmer Union in North Dakota and the She Summit in NYC, "what you see with women across the political and economic spectrum is a growing sense of frustration, facing barriers that they were previously told had been struck down." Leader-Chivée further notes that it's been a quarter century since Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas - and yet inappropriate conduct in the workplace is still a real concern for many women.
The shift heading into 2018, then, is that so much of the past's sexual misconduct has been brought out into the open. "What's powerful about #MeToo is that so many women have been intentionally silenced," says Leader-Chivée. An inordinate number of women have been silenced through settlement agreements, with many unaware that they were not alone, because of these enforced silences. Thanks to Gretchen Carlson's lawsuit against Fox News, that is finally beginning to change.
But how does an organization let potential new hires, as well as the market, know that they're one of "the good guys?" Leader-Chivée believes that organizations that want to do more than just talk the talk have a few ways they can get ahead. "There are some really simple and fundamental things that every organization needs to do," she advises. "First and foremost, every organization needs an outside ombudsman to look at claims, and not rely on human resources to be the ones investigating." In reality, employees don't always see the HR department as an ally. Leader-Chivée also recommends that companies be willing to go out and be public with valid claims, so the perpetrators go on to new jobs, with NBC's recent move to dismiss Matt Lauer swiftly as one example to follow. "Fundamentally, we need to have zero tolerance for people who demonstrate unacceptable behavior," she says. "The price of silence has to be greater than the price of transparency."
Much like the Civil Rights era in the US succeeded in part because individuals who didn't have something clear to gain stepped up publicly as allies, Leader-Chivée sees a similar parallel with women in the workplace, noting that "it takes a lot of men stepping up" to help effect long-lasting change. "Allies are huge, and of course we need men. None of this changes if men don't change their behavior. Ultimately men are the deciders," she says. "The extent that the paradigm shifts is that men take responsibility for the shift. Until men take a leading role tackling the bias, we're going to continue to face it."
While there are some organizations that are championing women in the right way and some sectors are taking the current "moment" more seriously than others, Leader-Chivée isn't comfortable with society resting on its laurels. "Are there some pockets of hope? Absolutely. But we have a long way to go." For example, she points to Peter Grower of Bloomberg as one individual who has been rallying to encourage more board diversity in the US.
These are very deep-seeded systemic issues that take a long time to resolve, but with authors and activists like Leader-Chivée at the helm, progress just might move forward that much quicker.