The #MeToo movement has been named best in 2017 by Time magazine. We can no longer avoid the issue: sexual intimidation in the workplace is rife. The Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO) has estimated the number of cases in the Netherlands at 134,000 per year. Needless to say, we are not talking about flirting here. As far as I am concerned, the response of Catherine Deneuve and other signatories to the letter attacking the #MeToo campaign is way off the mark. Sexual intimidation is far more than flirting. We – companies, public authorities and citizens – must all work together to create a safe workplace for everyone. Solutions are important and do not have to be complicated. Rules can be drawn up, but compliance is vital. Support is crucial because a cultural shift is required.
Research by Stefan Sagel, Professor of Labour Law at Leiden University, shows that it is currently difficult for anyone daring to take a stand against sexual intimidation in the workplace. It is still too common for the perpetrator to be given a warning and the victim to be moved to another department. It therefore seems that accusing someone of sexual intimidation is a bad career move. That should no longer be the case in 2018. Although judges have no problem in handing down severe punishment in cases of fraud, it appears that they find it more difficult when it comes to sexual intimidation. Even if the intimidation has been proven. That might be because there are few rules that judges can take as a basis.
That is why I am arguing that ‘thou shall not steal’ be extended to include ‘thou shall refrain from sexual intimidation’ and that it be incorporated in the Corporate Governance Code. The supervisory board and the works council can also be assigned a role. That Code prescribes rules of conduct that apply to major companies in the Netherlands. Such a rule in the Code would help because 97% of companies actually comply with it. That would be a start. Furthermore, every company should make clear during the initial training session (often shortly after entering service) that, on the basis of a code of conduct, every perpetrator of sexual intimidation will be summarily dismissed, as is the case for fraud and discrimination. It should be emphasized again during the refresher course for the entire staff. That also provides judges with a point of reference for allowing summary dismissal if an employee is guilty of sexual intimidation.
According to research, it helps if there is a ‘speak up’ culture within the company. This helps to spread responsibility. It’s more than just a perpetrator and a victim, discussing and drawing attention to abuse must become the responsibility of all employees. If you witness a colleague being intimidated in the workplace, you have a duty to speak up. If you hear a tasteless misplaced comment, call the perpetrator to account: "Do you realize how your comment can be interpreted?"
Research has shown that in companies with more women in senior management positions, sexual intimidation is far less frequent. And that brings me to a quota for women in senior positions. In recent years, we have made progress in the Netherlands, with a statutory target figure of 30% for a balanced division of men and women in senior positions. That applies to management and supervisory boards. According to the female board index, there are only six companies that meet that target figure for both boards. In 2017, the percentage of women on supervisory boards was 24.6%, and although that was an increase, the statutory target of 30% was not achieved. The percentage of women on management boards is only 6.2%. It is time for a quota or for a penalty if the target figure is not achieved and if there is no satisfactory explanation in the annual report. Italy and Belgium could serve as examples. Those countries impose a fine with a possibility to dissolve the board. A wage penalty for the other members of the management board may also help. As long as there is no quota, I suggest appointing a Minister of Emancipation: time's up.