Women, Weinstein and Whether It Matters To Procurement (Part 2)

We commented last week on the Harvey Weinstein scandal and the subsequent comments from many different women outlining other horrible experiences they have suffered in their working lives. We asked then whether the business world is very much different – or do problems exist there too, including in procurement organisations and functions?

I’ve spoken very much on a non-attributable basis to a (fairly small) number of women in what we might call the procurement industry over the past week or so – some practitioners, a couple on the solution provider side, generally friends, plus a couple of more “random” contacts where the opportunity presented itself.

Whilst not a statistically robust survey, the results were absolutely unanimous and (being very honest) more distressing than I had expected.  Not a single woman said “no, I have never had an issue personally”. Rather, every one immediately gave examples, multiple in most cases, of disturbing incidents or in some cases ongoing discrimination, harassment or worse in their working lives.

There are some companies where the whole culture is toxic – in one case, senior management generally treating women badly, limiting promotion opportunities, ignoring direct harassment, and women being told to “put up with it or get out” when they raised it. The one man who was finally told he had over-stepped the mark in this firm was given a huge pay-off and then walked into another job in the industry.

In other cases, the organisation may not be generically discriminatory, but individuals acted badly or even criminally. One woman told me of being kissed on the lips, totally unexpectedly, by a much older colleague in the office. The response when she complained – his wooden office door was replaced with a glass door (presumably so he had less privacy for his dirty deeds!).

Persistent and unwelcome advances are another issue, even if the offender does not do anything as direct as that last case. “It starts when you’re quite young, 14 or 15, and you sort of get used to it”. Misjudged, personal or offensive comments and jokes come up again and again as an issue. “Then you’re told not to be a miserable cow if you say you don’t find that funny”. Or if you play along to some extent, “you’re seen as a tease and a flirt, then they see you as fair game to take it further”.

The women I spoke to are, without exception, successful and confident people. So why didn’t they (in most cases) complain?  Two reasons: they didn’t want to get a reputation for “being difficult”,  or face hidden blacklisting, or affect their future job prospects, either within the organisation or if they wanted to move elsewhere. And secondly, as in the case of the pay-off mentioned above, they felt or knew that the response of the organisation would probably be pathetically inappropriate or unsatisfactory even if they did raise it.

A couple mentioned that “female HR managers are just as bad as male” and management, including HR, is usually more concerned about hushing up problems and protecting the organisation than taking real action. So, in some cases, there really are serial offenders out there who have been kicked out by more than one firm, but go on to other jobs, as nobody gives them a bad reference.

Even where the issues fall short of harassment and abuse, senior women in too many firms still perceive they are not treated like their male colleagues. That may be the often-quoted example of not being listened to in meetings, or “junior staff in the business – male and female – sometimes talk to me in a way that they wouldn’t dream of using with my male peers”, as one very senior friend told me.

I’m not going to propose a detailed agenda for change here other than to say organisations (and many individuals) need to take a hard look at themselves. If you are in a senior management role, take a look at your policies and procedures in this area, and ask yourself how a valued member of your team would react if she (or indeed he) had an issue. Would they be confident it would be handled properly?

And if any men reading this don’t believe the problem is as serious as my evidence suggests, then do (very carefully) speak to a few women you know. Probably not people who work for you, for obvious reasons, or maybe even others in your own organisation. Perhaps not your wife or partner; she may not want to tell you about what she may well have put up with over the years! But choose sensitively and just ask whether they think the Weinstein issues are only relevant in the media world, or also apply to the organisations they’ve worked in. See what they say – I suspect you might be surprised.

Certainly, my conversations suggest procurement is not immune from this behaviour and these issues. It is great that we have developed a focus in the profession on modern slavery in the supply chain, but we might want to take a hard look closer to home as well, and make sure that our own colleagues can also come to work without fear of harassment, abuse, discrimination and assault.

As always, we welcome comments – anonymous or not.

First Voice

  1. Ellen:

    Sadly, it’s something that most women encounter at some point or other both in their professional and private lives.

    And, like most women, I’ve had a few moments over the years, but one notable occasion was after giving a presentation on the interesting, but I wouldn’t have thought overly exciting topic of accounts payable automation, where someone waited to be last in the room before approaching me. I thought he was going to ask an industry based question – but no – he reached out and touched my hair and proceeded to tell me how sexy (and etc) he thought I was.

    All too often we’re just silent about it, mostly for the reasons you’ve mentioned. But, at least on an individual basis, this person realised their error. And as I bumped unexpectedly into him a few weeks ago while he was hosting a roundtable I attended, I did mull over informing the event organisers should he appear on an agenda again.

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