Not everyone may agree, but I sincerely believe that everything happens for a reason. The recent surge of accusations around sexual harassment is sweeping through the political, entertainment, and yes, also the business world, as a torch that systematically destroys an outdated status quo, and in its stead creates a new, long overdue reality.
Movements emerge at different paces – sometimes fast and sometimes slow – but whether we like them or not, they always serve a purpose. Among the expanding litany of accused powerful individuals we see some prominent public figures from the San Fernando Valley, such as state Sen. Tony Mendoza, and Assembly members Raul Bocanegra and Matt Dadabneh. At the same time, entertainment industry titan John Lasseter, a Walt Disney Co. executive and Pixar co-founder, has signed up for an extended sabbatical after a less-than-definitive apology for possible unappreciated advances he might have made. While evidence in each of these cases varies and is sometimes still unsubstantiated, the trend is incontrovertible.
Too many of the names in the news over the past months – personalities we thought we knew – have left us disoriented and disgusted. Yet there is always a morally based method to the madness, and all of this simply marks the end of an era. A massive awakening is under way, triggering a kind of domino effect involving those who once thought that power justified every action, whether appreciated, countenanced and tolerated, or not. Almost two decades into the 21st century, we have already seen some major awareness-based changes. In the first decade, the moral cleansing primarily focused on financial abuse; this second decade seems to be centered on emotional and sexual predation.
What’s happening now is that the glass ceiling is being shattered with a kind of career sledgehammer that can’t be halted, and the shards are falling everywhere. All scare tactics have proven ineffective, and what initially looked like an ugly can of worms has grown into a moral tsunami. The good news is that we may be closer to restoring real balance between the sexes – so long delayed and deferred – than we have been for generations.
It has indeed been a slow and slippery ascent to increased equality in the workplace, and there have been times that it was practically impossible to get women in C-suites. University of California – Davis School of Management’s annual study reports that today, there is still only one woman for every seven men in top leadership roles at California’s largest firms.
And within California itself, there are discrepancies as well. The San Francisco Bay Area does better than Southern California. The northern part of the state has a slightly higher percentage of female directors (14.5 percent) and higher-paid executives (10.9 percent) than the south (11.7 percent and 9.6 percent). Yet the slope continues upward, and the current sexual harassment accusations symbolize a mindfulness quake in a male-dominated landscape that once seemed rock-solid.
To me, it’s interesting to find that even the most intelligent, savvy people have a tendency to lose sight of the simplest moral handles that could help them maneuver through any type of situation. Long ago I learned about a few powerful questions I could ask myself before doing anything, especially if I wasn’t sure about what course to take. And, to be frank, even after coming to understand a blend of complicated, dogmatic, values-driven or reflective moral theories, these simple questions still make the most sense to me today:
• Would I make this decision if my family, friends or role models were to learn about it – or if it was published in tomorrow’s newspaper?
• Would I still take this action if one of my loved ones was on the receiving end?
• Would this course of action cause any possible harm to others?
I have found that these basic, straightforward queries, which take less than a minute to answer, can serve as a solid moral compass in all my decisions.
On a final note: when we deviate from the moral high ground and create a system that is unsustainable, our entire species loses. Perhaps the strongest message to convey may be that our actions always catch up with us, and that we should consider the long-term effects before giving in to impulses driven by overzealousness and delusions of superiority.
Joan Marques is dean at Woodbury University’s School of Business in Burbank, and she is author of “Ethical Leadership: Progress With a Moral Compass.”