humanitarian #metoo

You’d have to have been asleep for the past month to have missed the wild media roller coaster of #metoo. In many ways this feels like a watershed moment in public culture and discourse about sexual harassment in the workplace. We have not seen the end of it, nor—if I am to guess—will we for quite some time more. Pandora’s box is open, and although I won’t try to predict the future in any kind of detail, it feels safe to say that the status quo ante is changing, and for the better.

It may have all started in the entertainment industry, but it’s obviously far beyond that now. The humanitarian industry, too, has it’s own share of sexual harassment issues, perhaps even scandals waiting to emerge. If the number of (mainly, but not only female) colleagues who have ranted to me about this over coffee or after hours at the relief zone pub is any indication, it’s one of the most-discussed things that is never discussed.

So, maybe let’s discuss it a little bit. By no means some kind of final word on anything, but my observations, for now, for what they’re worth:

There is a problem. I don’t know how the humanitarian sector compares with other sectors or industries. But speaking here as a 26-year industry insider, in my experience and observation, sexual harassment is consistently a concern. I don’t know if it’s at a point of crisis or emergency (okay, even one instance is already unacceptable), but it is at least chronic. I am not one of those who deny the existence of this particular problem. Humanitarians are as prone to inappropriate behavior and as likely to abuse what counts as power in our world, as anyone. There is a problem.

Females are generally at a disadvantage in the humanitarian sector. This just has to be said. To me this is blindingly obvious, nearly all the time, in nearly every aspect of life in the humanitarian ecosystem. This, for all the reasons, and in all of the ways that we’re familiar with in all other sectors and industries. This is not a cause of or a reason for normalizing sexual harassment, but it is a huge contributing factor.

We make ourselves vulnerable. More than many other industries, I suspect we fudge the boundaries between personal and professional. I feel this personally: the fact that I have virtually zero social life outside of the humanitarian industry speaks to it. So while I treasure my relationships with some truly dear friends, male and female, I am also keenly cognizant that there is risk there, as well. The legendary amount of humanitarian consensual hooking up “in the field” or “on mission” means that the question of a consensual hookup is forever on the table. Moreover, in the pressure cooker of a response or embattled HQ team, workplace relationships can often take on a temporary deep, close quality that is not actually there. I see and experience this often. And unless we have good social and emotional intelligence, it can be easy to assume a level of familiarity that isn’t reciprocated, and with too little sleep or too many drinks, similarly easy to assume consent that in fact has not been given.

Further, situations rarely feel straightforward, and that can make lines of principle appear artificially blurry.

Many things about the humanitarian industry contribute a sense that the rules are somehow different for us. We’re very often far from home and support networks, in situations where we may already be uncertain, squashed in the back of a Land Cruiser or sharing accommodation with total strangers often from other cultural backgrounds, under-rested, and often under great stress. These and more mess with our heads and sometimes lead us to feel as if situations are different than they are. In such settings, I have seen some people come to believe that they are entitled to take liberties with colleagues that, in fact, constitute harassment. Or more darkly, they engage in harassment knowingly, because they think there will be no consequences

As an industry, we have to acknowledge and speak plainly about the unique vulnerabilities that we and our colleagues take on when we do this job. While the basic principles of what is and is not acceptable should not change from one industry to another, I think we have to engage with the realities of our industry and the ways in which those realities intersect with the issue of harassment.

Combination of policy, process, and culture. This is a very general pronouncement, but NGO and INGO policies on this issue establish little practical difference between inappropriate but consensual encounters between colleagues and actual harassment. There are lots of procedures around documenting, intermediate redress, giving both parties a chance to have their say. But short of behavior or an event that warrants criminal prosecution, most in-house INGO/NGO process is likely to be heavy on talking and mediated resolution.

Which means that while policy and procedure are important, just as are documenting and reporting, we all need to manage our expectations around procedural outcomes, at least in the immediate term. I guess that some humanitarian organizations will make “zero tolerance” statements, and perhaps revise and strengthen in-house policies in the wake of the cultural spiral of #metoo. Who knows? Maybe there will be the humanitarian equivalent of a Henry Weinstein or Kevin Spacey expose. But in general I think that the way forward needs to be a mixture of policy/procedure and industry culture. Which means…

Leadership & management set the tone. Yes, a workplace free from harassment of any kind is everyone’s job at some level. Everyone has a role to play, holding oneself accountable to a high standard of interpersonal behavior at the bare minimum. That said, if you are senior, if you manage others, if you are looked to by others for guidance in any way, you have a responsibility to articulate and then set the example. It does not matter whether someone up the chain of management from you sees the issues differently; this is not the time to quibble about the line between actual harassment and just creepy. As a manager or leader it is your job to communicate, and then model by your own interactions, a higher standard. And then hold those below you accountable to that same standard.

Update: And in case it is somehow not clear, the time for management and leadership to set the tone and lead by example is immediately.