No, really, Time's Up

If you've ever studied psychology at any level you will have come across the Stanford Prison Experiment. In which a group of students were randomly chosen to act the role of either prisoner or prison officer, and given certain rules and artefacts that reinforced their role. The upshot of the experiment was that ordinary students did some pretty crappy things to fellow students after not long at all, influenced solely by the culture that had been created around them, many elements of which in isolation could look pretty benign.

I'm reminded of it as I try to explain my take on women in the workplace to various people. 

The Presidents' Club dinner for example. The media's take on this is to focus on examples of poor/lewd/shitty behaviour from some of the men in attendance. Because of course, sex sells and the topic du jour is sex scandals of varying forms. 

That isn't my primary issue with the Presidents' Club. Imagine for a moment we are talking about the Stanford Prison Experiment instead. Lots of similar arguments could fall out - "We should name and shame those students beating other students!", "But lots of the prisoners were OK with what happened", "Who would choose to take part in something like that?", "People had free will....".

Sound familiar? Imagine if Zimbardo had taken from his experiment what we seem to be focusing on in relation to the Presidents' Club 'expose'. What might have happened? A few expulsions maybe? A lot of noise and not much learning? 

What the Stanford Prison Experiment teaches us is that culture and therefore behaviour is created by a cocktail of lots of smaller, often seemingly harmless, elements. The 'prison officers' were given mirrored sunglasses - not in itself enough to lead some of them to abuse their fellow students, but it helped 'dehumanise' them and distance them from their friends further down the road. Dressing the prisoners in sloppy shapeless outfits may not have seemed that important, but when some of them simply accepted the poor treatment being doled out to them, how much of an influence was it then?

My point? The bigger, more newsworthy, shocking elements of the Presidents' Club debacle stem from the very foundations of the event itself. It was men-only, despite that not being implicit in the event title or necessary for the event purpose (a charity fundraiser for rich business people to attend). The staff were all female, and had themselves certain clothing and behaviour codes to follow that reinforced their decorative nature and their subservience. The balance of power was off from the start - significantly off. And that balance of power, and all the small cultural codes that implicitly said 'the men are more significant than the women, who are here to entertain them' led eventually to some of the men behaving in some pretty shitty ways. 

Is the problem the shitty men? Or is the problem the fundamental structure of the event? 

A while back I sat in a boardroom with an executive team discussing diversity and inclusion. A group of good men, men who I knew to be kind in lots of ways. But all men. All white men. One had raised the question of whether, in a business that was over 80% male, we should be thinking about diversity. 

An odd, stilted conversation ensued for a while - responses ranging from "that's just the way the industry is" to "why is it that 'these people' don't reach senior levels of management?". After a while I spoke up. Firstly I observed that it was interesting that while discussing diversity, despite there being a woman in the room, the conversation was dominated by men. Not one of whom had asked for my opinion. As I started to offer it some responses got defensive. One man was very keen to wave the exit interviews of young females in my face to prove there was no diversity problem - despite the data saying otherwise. Another (who had used the phrase 'these people') acknowledged the clumsy language but wanted to focus on some examples of misogyny he felt he'd observed in his colleagues. 

In essence, the atmosphere became tenser. It happened again to me in my last Times Up blog - good men got defensive. Because people think I'm saying 'you are a shitty man' or 'men are shitty'. I'm not. I'm saying the system is shitty, and very often we contribute to the system unwittingly or by thinking it's harmless. We all do it. I do, you do. That doesn't make us misogynists or sexual predators. But it makes us complicit, and it sure as heck makes us responsible for the solution. 

This is why I have a fundamental issue with 'Women in Leadership' type events as they are often run - the focus being on women and what they should do differently, or on creating a 'safe space' and thereby excluding men from the conversation entirely. 

We have a problem with a business culture that is skewed towards a culture of masculinity. It creates problems for women, sure, but it also creates problems for men, for businesses and the economy. We won't solve that by Weinstein hunting alone. We need to look for, and acknowledge our mirrored sunglasses, our different uniforms and the hundreds of other smaller, seemingly innocuous cultural elements that prop up that system. And then we need to dismantle them. Together.