The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Gender inequality in the workplace is not just a women’s issue

Mary Lou Quinlanis an author and speaker who held senior executive positions for major corporations for more than three decades.

In a few short months, the grass-roots #MeToo campaign has roared from a single tweet to a global movement. As women have called out predators from Hollywood to Silicon Valley to Congress, companies have rushed to fire up employee hotlines to out offenders. MBA programs have added ethics seminars to challenge bro culture in the office.

But as we deal with the salacious hand-up-the-skirt revelations, does the dirt of daily discrimination that has held back women's earnings, participation and potential get shoved further under the rug, where it's been festering for decades? The issues of harassment and discrimination are linked, after all. The workplace where grabbing and taunting are tolerated is probably also one where women are considered less qualified or competent than their male colleagues and less worthy of raises or advancement simply because they are women. For too long, these problems have been relegated to human resources rather than to the humans involved, particularly men who may want to wrap themselves in their own hashtag: #NotMe.

The #MeToo movement will be in vain if we don’t make these changes

In her new book, "That's What She Said," Joanne Lipman explores the workplace gap and makes a powerful case for men to join with women to solve the persistent inequities on the job. Lipman, a former deputy managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and a former chief content officer of Gannett, offers dozens of examples of bold leaders taking a stand and engaging women to push toward a transformation. But she also piles on the evidence of a sustained gender gap so that inequities cannot be simply mansplained away.

As she reports, the National Women's Law Center has found that a woman will earn $418,800 less than the average man over a four-decade career; that deficit jumps to close to $1 million for African American women and even higher for Latinas. A Yale study found that women's voices weren't heard very often in meetings, where executive men spoke a "whopping 75 percent of the time," Lipman writes. When men spoke more than their peers, they were viewed as more competent. "For the female executives," Lipman writes, "it was the reverse. If they spoke more than their peers, they were judged 14 percent less competent."

Lipman also refutes the notion that women just need to get into the pipeline for the top jobs, pointing out that if that were true, "half of all corporate chief executives would be female by now, considering that the average CEO is a fifty-five-year-old man, meaning he graduated from college in the early 1980s — just when women became half of all college graduates."

The companies with "best place for women to work" status might look in the mirror, too. The token woman on the board, the spiffy lactation room, the diversity task force can airbrush out the reality of women in the trenches. What of the nonexempt or hourly working women, without a net or a network, who have more to lose by crying foul?

Lipman notes a recent article from the Economist that suggested "that twelve of the most terrifying words in the English language are 'I'm from human resources and I'm here to organize a diversity workshop.' " Some men, it seems, resist efforts to diversify the workplace by race or gender. Lipman opens her book with her memory of sitting next to a businessman on a plane. They were chatting easily until she mentioned that she was on her way to speak at a women's conference. "Suddenly my neighbor froze. 'Sorry!' He snapped. 'I'm a man.' " And the fellow ripped into a rant about a recent diversity training session he'd had to attend where "the facilitator had beaten up on him and his male colleagues." The message he took away was an accusation: "It's all your fault."

This gender newsquake, which erupted over sexual harassment and now needs to move into long-standing workplace inequities, may make men want to hit the mute button or turn the page. Not so fast, guys. I'm not pointing a finger, I'm extending a hand. There are a lot of good men out there trying to figure this out.

But we must beware of the resistance. In a recent Facebook post, Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg noted a simmering male reaction to the burst of sexual allegations. She wrote, "I have already heard the rumblings of a backlash: 'This is why you shouldn't hire women.' " Sandberg suggested that men need to lean in to the issue. But how can we get them to lean in if they don't want to talk about it? And if fewer women are hired for leadership jobs, will the chance of resolving the larger list of unsolved gender issues vanish?

Women of every economic level are glued to the harassment headlines because they've suffered in silence for years. Far from the Klieg lights of Harvey Weinstein's assaults or the lecherous voice on the Billy Bush bus, we connect the dots to our experiences. We may not work in the frat land of Silicon Valley or the halls of the Senate, but we gain strength from realizing we aren't alone; heck, even a former Miss America, Gretchen Carlson, outed her network boss and wrote a book about it. These stories dig up denied promotions, diminished paychecks and sexist comments disguised as jokes.

I've spent my career listening to women, and I've learned how to help their voices be heard, sometimes the hard way. In the 1990s, when I cracked the male clubhouse of Madison Avenue advertising, my passion for winning business got me to a CEO seat where I could place more women in senior positions. That didn't go unnoticed. One creative guy muttered, "Are you trying to turn this into a woman's agency?" Funny, no one ever questioned the decades of men in charge.

Corporations invited me to speak to their teams about listening to women because "they need to hear this." But too often, the audience was filled with women. Why did the men think only women needed my message?

How #MeToo really was different, according to data

It's true, listening is hard. But there's a simple way to begin. Let's dump the adage "When men have daughters, they will start listening." Men have had daughters and wives and sisters and friends for years. Sit down with a woman in your life and ask her about her job. What has she kept to herself? How would she change things?

And speak with your sons. I have hope for today's young men, but they need to understand this pervasive sexism before they adopt the behaviors of emerging dormlike workplaces where women survive by morphing into "cool girls," a term explained in the novel "Gone Girl": "Being the cool girl means I am a hot, brilliant, funny woman who adores football, poker, dirty jokes and burping."

I used to think that the bad-boy culture was a relic of 1971, when, as a freshman — and one of the first women to enter a formerly all-male college — I noticed the guys holding up signs. A welcoming committee? They were rating us 1 to 10. They may as well have shouted, "We don't want you here." I thought those days were gone, but examples still abound. Consider Uber, which has faced allegations of gender and race discrimination, and Vice Media, where female employees have described a culture of sexual harassment. The boys' clubhouse is unfortunately still alive and well.

As Lipman suggests, "If men are blind to the gender gap experienced by women, we can hardly expect them to care about it, or to be partners in helping to close it." Start the ethics class in your living room tonight. Raise a generation of men who will do it right. They'll be better off — and so will the rest of us.