The TUC and The Bar have both recently released reports about sexual harassment of women at work. Below are both reports and we’ve added a short note on a very positive and original approach to dealing with these issues, which we hope you’ll find helpful.

This first report, from the TUC, suggests that “younger women in particular are (still) encountering problems…. two thirds of those between the ages of 18 and 24 have suffered sexual harassment in the workplace. With 1,500 women polled for this survey, a third said they have faced unwelcome jokes in the past, with a quarter receiving suggestive comments about their body or clothes”.

More bad news about this:
Sexual harassment and discrimination still rife at the Bar 13/7/16

The question is how to tackle it? And here’s the good news in one really interesting approach described in this interview with David Cooperrider, the co-developer of Appreciative Inquiry, in back in 2001.

Here is the whole interview

And here is the extract about harassment:

“For example, a major Fortune 500 company began to try seriously to address sexual harassment. They hired a very effective consulting firm from New York to work on this issue for several years. The consultants analyzed the litigation and its cost to the company. The brought in counsellors, they created a whole series of sexual harassment programmes to raise awareness and communicate company policy.

Yet, one day the president of the consulting firm called me and said, “Dave, I’d like to talk. I’ve been working in this area for twenty years and for the first time in my career; I’m starting to admit to myself that maybe my help is not helpful. When we look at the statistics, we’re finding that every single measure shows the sexual harassment problem is getting worse. Litigation numbers have increased, the cost to the company has increased, the numbers of people engaged with counseling has increased, and the reported incidents have increased. Our sexual harassment training programs are not going well, people are voting with their feet, the rooms are half-empty now. We are finding that those who participated in our training feel more distance between people of the opposite gender. They feel less ability to talk with one another. They feel more distrust, and feel less comfortable approaching each other. Every single thing we’ve done is making things worse.”

So, the question was how to take an appreciative inquiry approach to sexual harassment.

I started asking questions: this is the important starting place for the appreciative approach. As you ask questions, they begin to shift the framing of the situation. I said, “What is it that you want to see happen as a result of the work?” She replied, “Well we want to reduce sexual harassment”. I said, “No. Let’s say that’s very successful, what do you really want to see?” and she blurts out “Well, of course we want high quality cross gender relationships in the workplace.” I said “Aha, what happens if instead of doing a diagnostic study of the problems we started doing a full out search for moments where people felt most effectively connected in co-leadership between men and women in the workplace?” The point here is that humans move in the direction of what we ask questions about.
I asked her, “This isn’t my area of expertise but is there one book or a study of high quality co-leadership relationships between men and women in a corporation?” She said “You know, there are thousands of studies about sexual harassment, there’s not one in the entire literature on the highest quality dynamics of men and women.” What does that mean? Does that mean that those highest quality shared relationships do not exist? No, it just means that our habits of analysis have taught us that it doesn’t count.

In this case, we started a cycle of appreciative inquiry. It moves from discovery, to dreams, to designing the future, to destiny. At the center of everything is topic choice, not what is the problem, but what are the topics that we are going to launch the organization-wide analysis around? In this case, the topic was men and women working it out, standing as a team, as shared leaders. We put an invitation in the company newsletter for pairs who felt like they had something to teach the world about the high quality of co-leadership. We were hoping for maybe a dozen volunteers to share their stories. We had over 100 pairs volunteer to come to this workshop!

At the workshop, we did a thorough analysis of the stages of development of their relationships, what the environmental factors were, the tasks, and the nature of leadership in this situation that helped them develop the highest quality co-leadership. At the end of the workshop they said that we couldn’t just stop here, we needed to take this methodology to the entire company. So, these 100 pairs went out and they each interviewed five other pairs. So, all of a sudden, you had five hundred interviews going on throughout the company searching for moments where there was exceptional high quality “co-leadership” in the workplace. We gathered up all those stories, put together a book of about 500 pages with one story after another looking at the stages of development of the high quality relationship, looking at how men and women overcame stereotypes of each other.

We then created an appreciative inquiry summit. The summit is a large group planning technique where we bring between 100 and 2,000 people together for three days to address a question. In this case the question was, How do we develop the 21st century organization for maximizing the potential of high quality co-leadership between men and women? We used those hundreds of stories to analyze the root causes of success in that area.

The first stage was discovery and mapping the positive core, all the capacities this company had to build high quality co-leadership between men and women. Then they began to dream about the 21st century vision that they had for that company. Then they began to create design principles. How should our company be structured? What are our principles about career development? What are our values about shared power and decision-making? They designed a picture of the ideal organization and then finally set in motion plans and processes for making that happen. Two years later, this company won the Catalyst Award for Best Organization in the Country for Women to Work. It’s a powerful story and it begins to illustrate how we can go beyond the deficit-based theory of change and unleash the power of positive change.