It’s been more than a year and a half since the #MeToo hashtag took off on Twitter, and the movement that activist Tarana Burke started in 2006 became an unavoidable part of the national conversation. Since then, discussions around workplace sexual assault and harassment are being heard in a way they weren’t before. While every company is required by law to provide training against sexual harassment, the many women who have stepped forward to share their stories indicate most efforts have proven ineffective.
Unsurprisingly, many female entrepreneurs are taking these issues seriously. Leading their own companies and illuminating the runway for others who follow, many have taken #MeToo and changed their companies. If you’re unsure of how to implement and incite prevention methods, as well as give victims a safe place to divulge, take the words of wisdom from these leaders.
Prioritize a platform
For cofounder and CEO of Motherly, Jill Koziol, the #MeToo movement made a significant impact on her—not only as a leader but as a woman and a mother to two daughters. It was the push she needed to to rise above the sexual harassment she experienced in her career and to acknowledge inequalities in her partnerships she had faced. As she describes it, it emboldened her and lit a fire that continues to burn brightly.
For her company, the purpose after #MeToo was to become a place where women could share their stories, ask questions, be bold, and, more importantly, be heard. Regardless of the industry, providing this outlet will help more females within a business feel empowered to come forward or to raise concerns to behaviors. “Give women a platform to be heard, to destigmatize experiences around feeling/being a victim,” she urges. “Help them see they aren’t alone and that their voices matter. Shed light on the implicit biases.”
Collaboration is what makes change
Lauren Wood, the founder of Humanly, experienced what many women started thinking about as they paged through one #MeToo story after another. She realized that we had become numb to a lot of the behavior that filled the lines of magazines and digital news. Instead of sexual assault and harassment being something to rally against, it had become an expected truth of working in business as a woman. This realization was shocking to Wood—especially as she thought back to the start of her career in investment management.
‘The response I received was one of ‘this is something you’ll have to get used to and learn how to manage. It won’t be the last time it happens.’ And it’s not that they were condoning the behavior—they would’ve pushed me to take action if it had qualified as something that threatened my safety. They were trying to help me set realistic expectations about corporate America,” she continued.
With the momentum of #MeToo, female professionals are no longer standing for it anymore. Wood’s company is there at the frontlines, standing tall and doing what they can to move against this age-old notion that suppresses women. It’s taught Wood the importance of walking the talk—and including everyone as part of the discussion. This includes men, women, executives, clients, and entry-level employees.
“The #MeToo movement has emphasized the criticality of collaboration among people who have experienced the identified problem and those in positions of addressing the problem to design potential solutions that are grounded in reality. Solutions that take into account societal, political, and operational constraints and opportunities,” she continues. “Change doesn’t happen in a vacuum and without buy-in from key constituents or stakeholders . . . Engage your employees in a discourse about what the #MeToo movement means to them, what it has brought to light, and how it has influenced their perception or behavior. And once you’ve listened, let them know they’ve been heard by sharing what you’ve learned and how you plan to address any concerns.”
Ask “why”—and ask it loudly
Though cofounder of LivingDNA Hannah Morden-Nicholson doesn’t think #MeToo had fundamentally shifted her company, it has confirmed their belief that culture is invaluable—and more so, an open forum where employees are heard. This means ensuring there are no “right” or “wrong” answers or questions too simple or obvious. For Morden-Nicholson, #MeToo sounded alarm bells, leading her to propose more “why” inquiries.
“Why as women are we waiting for a movement before we feel we can speak the truth? Why do we keep quiet about sexual assault and feel like we can’t say that’s not okay?,” she continued. These feelings were the result of her own experience, since as a sexual assault victim, she understood herself what it’s like to feel the pressure to be quiet.
“One of my aims is to have a company where women feel like they can speak up. But this starts with everyday life—not just extreme situations,” she continues. “We foster a culture where everyone has a voice and is encouraged to share. It is by supporting women to speak up everyday that they perhaps might feel more confident to do so in all situations. I’d rather have an honest team than a nice one.”
Though hate might be a strong word for some, it’s the right one for this entrepreneur. In fact, she believes part of making a difference is getting angry enough to do something. “My advice is to hate what society does to people who feel like they can’t come forward. To hate that humanity can get to a point where we can abuse each other and think we can get away with it,” she shares. “And if you hate it enough, then you will know how to have an environment that is not that.”
Ensure management leads by example
Midge Seltzer, the cofounder and executive vice president of Engage PEO, a professional employer organization providing HR-sourcing solutions, knows firsthand how #MeToo has shifted company cultures, since many clients have reconsidered their own HR practices since the discussion went viral. Considering many states have implemented mandatory sexual harassment training in response, it makes sense that brands and businesses would take it as an opportunity to pivot their own policies, even when not mandated by law. Though the people team is usually responsible for this diligence, Seltzer says true transformation within a company culture can only take place if it comes from the top.
“Prevention includes looking to leadership to lead the prevention efforts and help to create a zero tolerance culture, regular comprehensive training, and communication to ensure awareness and understanding, strong anti-harassment policies, accessible and trusted complaint and investigation procedures, and follow up/accountability to ensure compliance,” she continues. “Management must lead by example, communicate often with managers and employees, and create a zero tolerance policy for sexual harassment in the workplace . . . . Employers should make sure they are addressing issues early, complaints are investigated in a timely manner, and any harassment is stopped. Holding managers and employees accountable is also key to a producing positive changes in the workplace.”
Take sexual assault prevention offline, ASAP
The founder and CEO Cate Luzio started her collaboration hub and meeting space, Luminary, in the wake of #MeToo. After working for 20 years in banking, she was at a financial institution when the story began to grow. What amazed her was how no one acknowledged it was happening in this male-dominated sector: no meeting, no town hall, no anything.
Even though there was silence, her female employees rallied, hoping it would be a watershed moment, Luzio shares. They’re still waiting, since she notes the banking industry hasn’t been hit with #MeToo yet. “I have witnessed women shunned and blackballed for speaking up or reporting bad behavior. Backlash is a reality, and many women with the courage to speak their truth often can’t get a job after,” she shares.
It was this experience and realization that led her to open the doors to Luminary, and the movement had a significant impact on her vision for the space and the programming female professionals crave and need. In all businesses, Luzio shares it’s vital to take the conversation offline rather than giving a pamphlet to everyone and calling it a success. “We have to move beyond online harassment training and foster company cultures where people actually feel safe and supported to offer their honest reflections and experiences,” she continues. “Confront the issues and make examples of those bad actors in your companies. If we continue to sweep these stories, experiences and allegations under the rug, the problem will only get worse.”