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In Davos, a #MeToo moment gets unexpectedly emotional

The Washington Post is in Davos. Hear from our reporters on the ground at this year's World Economic Forum. (Video: Jorge Ribas/The Washington Post)

DAVOS, Switzerland — The technology executive began to tear up. Peggy Johnson, who leads business development at Microsoft, was telling a roughly 200-person audience at the World Economic Forum about her daughter  — how the young woman does not laugh when men in her office make dirty jokes.

“I always laughed,” she said of her younger self, a striver in corporate America. “I thought I had to.”

Johnson wondered where her daughter had found the strength to keep a straight face when such gags, especially at a woman’s expense, weren’t funny.

“She said, ‘Mom, you don’t laugh,’” Johnson said, her voice breaking. “She learned it from my 50-year-old self. Because I don’t laugh anymore. I’m in that position of power now.”

The room burst into applause.

After stories about sexual harassment flooded the news and social media last year, the annual meeting at Davos, known for drawing some of the world's most powerful people to discuss society's most pressing issues, is addressing this form of workplace misconduct in a major way for the first time.

Johnson spoke on the week's first public panel about sexual harassment, the obvious and the subtle, the roots and possible solutions. Another discussion is slated for Thursday (“How do we stop sexual harassment?”).

Shops in Davos are peddling T-shirts that say “Feminist” for 30 Swiss francs. “Me too” is tossed around like “GDP.” Company heads are trading diplomacy for bluntness.

At a private event Monday in a swanky hotel, Lynne Doughtie, chief executive of KPMG, one of the big four accounting firms in the United States, slammed men who say they now feel uncomfortable to meet alone with women at work in light of the #MeToo movement.

“You know what I say to them? That statement implies that you think women are not telling the truth,” she said.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau further elevated the issue’s profile Tuesday, calling sexual harassment “unacceptable” and a “systemic problem” in his Davos speech.

Johnson, who worked for 27 years at the telecommunications firm Qualcomm before joining Microsoft, wanted Davos goers — an overwhelmingly male group of chief executives, politicians and other celebrities — to see sexual harassment as an economic drag. It's a form of gender discrimination, she said, and it restrains talent, which holds back companies and ultimately countries.

She recalled wasting energy over the years on avoiding predatory colleagues. She could have spent that time improving herself.

“There’s a business impact to this,” Johnson told the crowd. “That angers me when I look back on it now.”

She urged other business leaders in Davos to follow Microsoft’s lead and scrap employment contracts that require workers to settle sexual harassment cases through arbitration, a common practice that she says perpetuates the cycle of abuse. (The computer juggernaut became the first Fortune 500 company to do so in December.)

In the second row, Laura Liswood, founder and secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders, part of the United Nations Foundation, jotted notes.

“I’ve been going to Davos for 19 years,” Liswood said, and she'd never seen attention paid to the issue like this.

Another speaker on the panel, sponsored by the New York Times, which broke the Harvey Weinstein story, was Winnie Byanyima, executive director of Oxfam International, an organization focused on ending poverty.

Byanyima told the group in suits, designer dresses and fur-lined snow boots not to forget more vulnerable victims: housekeepers, clothing makers, cellphone assemblers.

“For the CEOs who are here, they are their employees,” she said. “All of them tell us they face sexual harassment. It goes on with impunity.”

One company head stood up. A Forum employee handed him a microphone.

“A dozen years ago, there wasn’t a single [darn] meeting in Congress Hall on women,” said Rick Goings, chief executive of Tupperware Brands, referencing the largest meeting space in Davos. “And now there’s more than a dozen happening.”

Goings had a question for the panel — which also included Maryam Monsef, Canada’s Minister of the Status of Women, Dacher Keltner, a psychology professor at the University of California at Berkeley and Lisa Sherman, chief executive of the Advertising Council — about workplace flirtations, adding that some people meet romantic partners on the clock.

“How do you go from innocent engagement to horrific predatory behavior?” he asked.

Another man raised his hand, identifying himself only as the father of a boy and a girl. How do men own up to “sexual harassment or otherwise,” he asked, “as I’m sure many of us in this room have participated in?”

The speakers offered advice: Change your behavior. Vote. Support women. Invest in their enterprises.

“Take the lead,” Monsef said. “Self-organize. You have the power and tools to do it.”

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