In recent weeks, The Netherlands was under the spell of its own #MeToo scandal. The television program “BOOS” broadcast statements from many women who have been victims of sexually transgressive behavior for more than a decade in John de Mol’s mega television show “The Voice of Holland”.
Participants in this program are challenged to a career in show business. The men in question, Jeroen Rietbergen, Ali B. and Marco Borsato have each (had) a leading position in this program. They are alleged to have made sexual comments and suggestions towards female staff members and candidates in the show for years on end. There was allegedly unwanted groping and even rape.
As unpleasant and terrible as these unwanted experiences are for the women involved, the debate that has erupted deserves far more and deeper attention than the public nailing to the cross of the three men involved.
Virtually every woman has similar experiences at some point in her life. This is true for all women around the world. Most remain silent about it out of shame, guilt, or helplessness. Not infrequently the incident is seen by the person concerned as one of the admittedly very unpleasant but ‘natural’ inevitabilities of existence.
Up until now, it has proved very difficult, particularly for most men, not to lapse into denials, silly jokes, obligatory expressions of sympathy, and, above all, the phenomenon of ‘it happens over there, but not here’. This applies not only to show business, a traditionally sexually more explicit culture but also in ‘normal’ club life and in business. This brings us into the realm of corporate governance. What should the board do?
If these kinds of events are seen as incidents, nothing will ever change. It is the job and responsibility of every board and supervisory board to banish this persistent injustice, rooted in human inadequacy, from its own organization. It is literally about safety in the workplace.
Sexually transgressive behavior has relatively little to do with sex. It has everything to do with power and with the exercise of power. Seen this way, in an organization, it is like the extreme superlative of bullying in the workplace.
In every organization and every company, there is power and the exercise of power, whether it is a gymnastics club where young girls are trained or an insurance company. That exercise of power must be regulated.
Most larger companies try to prevent undesirable forms of behavior, including sexually transgressive behavior, through codes of conduct. The vulnerable women are also often offered a confidant to whom they can report their experience, sometimes anonymously. However, empirical research shows that the effectiveness of this type of measure is very limited. Much more is needed than just setting up a certain arrangement.
It is an illusion for a board to think that a code and a confidential advisor will solve the problem. It often involves deeply rooted processes, embedded in the culture of the organization and even society. These can only change if they are actually and continuously addressed. This means that sexually transgressive behavior must be discussed regularly in every organization, in all sections. Men and women together. Only then is it possible to bring about behavioral changes in the group and in individuals.
A necessary condition for improvement is the general awareness that sexual transgression is not a problem of and for the women who are the victims, but for all of us. So, directors and supervisory directors must also get angry about it.