Our world and our nation are undergoing rapid social change, which I believe is at the root of our current, unsettling and disruptive politics. Think how our collective societal views have changed, and continue changing, on things like gay marriage, LGBTQ equality, marijuana legalization, and in our professional orbit, animal rights, protection, and welfare. Change is disruptive, and that is reflected in today’s social dialogue and politics—coarse, angry, and sometimes a bit scary.
The comforting news is that our overall course of change is positive.
Dr. Martin Luther King said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” We are an increasingly diverse society, and we are proceeding beyond tolerance, to inclusion, and hopefully, ultimately, toward celebration. But change is disruptive, and many are resisting and will resist, because the direction of change is threatening their beliefs, traditions, and the comfort of their status quo. This often takes unfortunate turns. Witness the mean, at times, hateful speech that frequently occupies the public and political square. People and institutions will continue building barriers against it. But it will not stop this march of change. It will continue in its inexorable bend along the moral arc of the universe, toward justice.
A crucial dimension in this wave of positive change is our growing recognition of, and intolerance for, sexual harassment. Many have long and heroically struggled in this cause, but then — Bang! — a movement emerges in the form of #MeToo, and that long arc arrives at its destination. Yes, it is disruptive. And disruption will continue. Thankfully!
In the rigorous debate surrounding the #MeToo movement, we hear concerns about how “mere allegations” may damage the lives and careers of the accused, about the potential for “false allegations,” and about “due process.”
First, and perhaps foremost, as we deal with harassment allegations, it is important to show concern for the alleged victim, the harm done to them, and alarm at the actions which they allege. Concern with the victim should be paramount.
Second, although false allegations do occur, they are extremely rare. History informs us that it is much more likely—in fact, highly likely—that sexual harassment will go unreported. We must, therefore, celebrate this moment and movement, where victims are feeling more secure and supported, and it is becoming increasingly likely that incidents will be reported.
Finally, due process is important, and is still available in formal administrative and legal proceedings. In the February 12th Washington Post, Christine Emba describes “our persistent misunderstanding of due process, and how that real and quite specific constitutional standard is meant to apply to incidents where the government seeks to deprive someone of life, liberty or property—not to public opinion or to private employer decisions. The obligations of due process are that the government give the accused fair notice and a fair hearing, not that a person credibly accused of a crime should be allowed to keep their preferred employment for as long as they would like.”
People in positions of leadership—Chiefs, Directors, CEOs, Members of Congress, Cabinet Secretaries, and yes, Presidents—are held to a higher standard. They are supposed to lead by example of character and integrity, and if that is called into question, then their ability to lead is compromised. That, presumably, is why dozens of prominent people who have disputed or even denied allegations against them have been compelled to step down from powerful positions: the late-Roger Ailes at Fox News; Harvey Weinstein in Hollywood; Al Franken in the U.S. Senate; Matt Lauer at NBC News; and recently, Wayne Pacelle, at the Humane Society of the United States. In the latter case, like many of you, I was troubled and disappointed to learn of the allegations against Wayne and believe he ultimately did the right thing by resigning from his position.
All of this is uncovering an undeniable, systemic and ongoing pattern of harassment, actual and alleged, by men with power, against women with much less of it. And it commands attention in a community, like ours, where women are well-represented in professional ranks, but men are still predominate in management and especially executive ranks.
As incoming Association of Zoos and Aquariums President and CEO, I was not surprised to hear women speak of historic harassment during AZA conferences and meetings. Last year, we put in place new and clear policy for AZA-sponsored conferences and meetings, and are prepared to respond, in real-time should any incidents occur:
“AZA is dedicated to providing a harassment-free conference experience for everyone, regardless of gender, gender identity and expression, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance, body size, race, age, religion, or political affiliation. AZA has a zero tolerance policy for harassment in any form. Violations by any registered attendee or participant at this AZA Conference may result in expulsion and possible ban from future AZA events.”
But again, we need to remember that harassment, and especially sexual harassment usually is not reported. On Sunday, February 11, White House Counselor, Kellyanne Conway, said, “There’s a stigma and a silence surrounding all these issues. . . . Those who are in a position to do something about it ought to.”
In the past year, I have found the AZA community to be proud, passionate, capable and caring. I encourage all members to take the opportunity of this moment and apply those traits in reviewing your policy and practice, and opening lines of communication with employees on issues of workplace harassment. We who are in position to do something ought to.
Let’s make sure we are on the right side of history in this arc toward greater justice.