Time magazine's 2017 Person of the Year was a movement — one that has facilitated the sharing of stories revealing decades of sexual harassment in the workplace. The Silence Breakers, as named by Time, are best identified by a hashtag now recognized globally.
#MeToo symbolizes a seminal moment in our culture, a torrent of accounts describing behaviors that demoralized and humiliated women against a backdrop of near-daily reports of famous men accused of sexually harassing female subordinates. The stories reveal a consistent pattern of predatory behaviors that went unchecked by workplace leaders and were enabled by a silence only occasionally interrupted by hushed conversations among peers.
The list of men who have been fired or are under investigation includes a Who's Who of boomers. Harvey Weinstein, Bill O'Reilly, Matt Lauer, Michael Oreskes, Steven Seagal and Leon Wieseltier are examples of powerful boomer men who are alleged to have exploited their positions by making unwanted sexual advances to women at work. As a workplace expert who focuses on generational issues, I'd say that in order for this hashtag moment to usher in meaningful change, the boomer generation must channel the activism that energized their youth.
Boomers and sexual harassment
No, boomers didn't invent sexual harassment. But they should have ended the practice, rather than spending decades perpetuating it. The generation that came of age challenging authority, opposing what they saw as an unjust war, fighting for civil rights and supporting the women's movement ended up perpetuating a workplace culture that continually disadvantaged women and minorities.
Even as other generations have shared the spotlight of shame, the boomers continue to have a sufficient enough hold on power in the workplace to effect change.
For too long, corporate executives have been complicit by opening their wallets to maintain the status quo. Federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission data reports that between 2010 and 2016, U.S. companies paid nearly $300 million to resolve sexual harassment claims. That doesn't include untold amounts paid to victims in private settlements with strict confidentiality provisions.
Studies show that the career paths of many sexual harassment victims are significantly interrupted, resulting in more frequent job changes and greater financial stress. For women in lower-paying jobs, the consequences can be particularly devastating. A detailed study of female restaurant workers found that those relying on tips for income make up the largest single source of EEOC complaints of sexual harassment.
A watershed moment? It depends
Commentators seem certain that this is a watershed moment that will forever change the workplace. They argue that the fuel of harassment — silent acquiescence — will no longer be available to men who wield their power to humiliate and trap victims who fear losing their jobs. Turning that hope into reality, however, may depend on whether boomers accept their own complicity in perpetuating the circumstances that allowed these behaviors to continue unchecked for so long.
But there's a significant generational divide, as can be seen in a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. When asked if sexual harassment happens in most or almost all workplaces, 78 percent of women between 18 and 49 responded affirmatively, compared with 64 percent over 50. (Similarly, 68 percent of men ages 18-49 said yes, compared with just 55 percent of men over 50.) And when women were asked whether they had personally experienced sexual harassment at work, 56 percent of millennials said yes, vs. only 40 percent of boomers.
Boomer women's memories of sexual harassment
It is unlikely that these differences can be attributed to faded memories of long-ago workplace experiences. Based on the undercurrent of many discussions I have had in the past month, I wonder if this data instead reflects a pride that some boomer women take in their toughness and ability to persevere, as well as a refusal to characterize the bad behavior they experienced quite as starkly as their younger counterparts.
While this may be a self-protective measure, it's one with negative consequences for younger colleagues desperately seeking changes in the workplace.
In my role as a speaker and consultant, I'm frequently in workplaces where women share their #MeToo moments with me. Some boomer women have described variations on a theme: highly inappropriate sexualized behavior from a male superior that they handled quietly, yet forcefully enough to end the overtures. Yet each of these stories came with regret for the silence that followed, fearful that the perpetrator would find a weaker victim for his next overture.
Where boomer leadership is needed most
The silence has been broken, but there is a long way to go before women can truly feel safe at work. And this is where boomer leadership is needed most.
Boomers should take the lead in supporting an internal, confidential analysis of their workplace culture to determine the extent of the problem and promise those who participate the ability to speak freely without fear of retribution. The boomer managers — male and female — should also implement measures needed for women to safely report any incident to someone who is not directly responsible for their careers and then develop a fair process to protect victims, accelerate investigations and implement fair resolutions.
Boomers have a marvelous opportunity to use their power and seniority to profoundly change workplace culture before they exit their careers. If they can render #MeToo obsolete, members of this generation will be able to take pride in a legacy demonstrating that they made one essential, enduring difference in the workplace that they vowed to change when they were in their 20s.
This story originally appeared on NextAvenue.org.