Gender Correctness. The Taboo Executives Don’t Even Discuss

Published: 29 July 2012

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by Auguste Coetzer

Women are finally beginning to enter that previously male preserve, the senior executive suite, and a good thing, too. How do men – and women – adapt to this situation? Regrettably, there is little discussion of this topic.

There should be because some unforeseen consequences are becoming apparent as the skirts join the suits in the upper echelons of business.

The behaviour of some men is changing. They are becoming defensive, and evasive.

As a result, they are adopting some American practices that seem bizarre until they are put into the context of that big corporate growth area – the sexual harassment suit.

We should be seeing gender sensitivity. We see gender correctness instead.

For example, ‘correct’ behaviour for the executive male is to wait for the next lift when he sees that the lift he was about to enter is occupied by a lone woman.

Going into a lift with a single woman occupant could be injudicious. If the woman complains something improper happened, considerable reputational damage may ensue, even if the charge is baseless.

Similarly, if a woman colleague wishes to see a male colleague in his office, one on one, the ‘correct’ male behaviour is to make sure the office door stays open.

I am told sexual harassment cases are backing up at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration.

Many complaints may well be valid, but judging by feedback from senior male executives there is growing suspicion that many are not and some women are becoming adept at obtaining a financial settlement on flimsy grounds.

I work with senior executives all the time. The men tell me the issue of false or exaggerated claims of sexual harassment is a genuine concern.

They not only worry about one-on-one scenarios, they are also careful about:

  • What they say if this might be interpreted as sexist or perpetuates stereotypes such as the dumb blonde or the scatter-brained, non-technical female
  • What jokes they tell if the joke might appear sexist or suggestive
  • What jokes they laugh at if a laugh might be regarded as an endorsement of a sexist viewpoint
  • Complimenting a woman, in case this is interpreted in the wrong way

In the US, a flood of sexual harassment cases was initially seen as positive. Women were cheered on talk shows for their bravery in coming forward.

Then doubts surfaced. Were all cases well founded? After all, some hefty financial settlements were made. Male executives went into defensive mode; resulting in ‘correct’ behaviour and an arm’s length attitude to women colleagues.

Then male employees began bringing sexual harassment suits against women managers. It’s hard to say how cohesive teamwork can be achieved in a toxic environment like this.

The dilemma has yet to reach these proportions in South Africa, but the potential is there.

Sexual harassment is a crime. False and flimsy claims are also abhorrent. Once the suspicion gains ground that women are making false claims it becomes that much harder for real victims to stand up and complain.

As more and more women enter what was once a male-dominated arena, it is important for organisations to ask what sort of culture they wish to create.

Equal opportunities must be offered. Women must be allowed every chance to advance. Men should be careful of the language they use and the attitudes they adopt. But women have responsibilities, too.

Dressing for the office in a revealing or provocative way is simply not appropriate. Woman have to exercise discipline as well.

Bad tempered, bullying male bosses are bad enough, but now there are whispers that we are beginning to see the emergence of the bitchy boss – the female senior executive who behaves in an aggressive manner to male colleagues to distract attention from her own shortcomings.

Spouses and partners at home should also be involved in the gender sensitivity debate. After all, having drinks with the boss after work may mean that a mid-tier male executive will be socialising with a female superior or vice versa.

At the moment, the entry of women at senior management level seems to be leading to male defensiveness and gender correctness. Do we want this?

Will we over-correct into a situation where spontaneity is destroyed and there is no joy in the workplace?

Having an equal opportunity policy is wonderful; but it is also necessary to look at some other rules and office practices.

Should evening meetings be scheduled at all? Should there be a policy on socialising after work? Is gender sensitivity training necessary? Should this involve both men and women?

South Africans have made great strides on the issue of racial sensitivity. The next challenge is gender sensitivity. Unfortunately, few business leaders even talk about the issue. Perhaps it’s time they did.

* Auguste (Gusti) Coetzer is a founding member, shareholder and director of Talent Africa, a leading provider of integrated talent solutions and leadership development.