When Women Lead the Workplace

Matt Lauer joins the growing list of powerful men felled by sexual misconduct allegations. What would change if women were in charge?

(Photo by Al Pereira/WireImage)(PHOTO BY AL PEREIRA/WIREIMAGE VIA GETTY IMAGES)

I WAS WATCHING NBC’S annual coverage of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with an eight-year old, spotting the arrival of the Pikachu float and thinking about how Matt Lauer just had his gig down pat.

Cool, articulate, able to go high or low, celebrity interviews or presidential politics, fabulously compensated and so utterly self-confident. Or, as we now know, too self-confident, given how his world crashed Wednesday, like some punctured float high above the Avenue of the Americas.

What’s notable, once again, is the initial sense of shock and awe, with social media the window onto to our visceral sense of amazement. And there are the declarations about yet another watershed and the need for dramatic workplace change.

Some of it seems so utterly naïve.

Once again, we’re shocked by workplace realities we all know about. We know of the powerful exploiting the powerless. As for issues of marital fidelity and sexual harassment by famous people, the Lauer disclosures once again filled my email inbox with lots of, “Oh, yeah, no real surprise. He …”

But it was the same with Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Mark Halperin and Charlie Rose. I know I’ve missed another five or 10. It’s hard to keep track these days, isn’t it?

Wednesday’s missives included one from Ann Marie Lipinski, a good friend, former colleague and boss at The Chicago Tribune and now the curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism. It came amid emails that I got from current and former Lauer colleagues who could only say that maybe the timing of NBC’s announcement was an early-morning surprise, but the substance really wasn’t. It’s been a pattern of late after these not-so-shocking disclosures about men in power.

The headline on her own piece in NiemanReports tells you what you need to know: “When Women Stand Up Against Harassers in the Newsroom.” But the so-called subhead is more telling: “We don’t need more training – we know what to do.”

For good reason, there’s a wonderful, smiling photo of a former colleague of ours named Ellen Soeteber. She was the first female metro editor at The Tribune and went on to big newsroom positions in St. Louis and Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Tragically, she died of a freak infection while on a cruise last year at age 66.

Lipinski recalls how she once watched as a male editor ambled about the Tribune newsroom, looking for somebody to handle a particular story. A veteran reporter, who was pregnant, offered her services but the male editor declared, “Forget it! You’ll be in the stirrups by then.”

Bingo, right in front of a large group of colleagues, he demeaned her as a handicapped “child-bearing caricature,” as Lipinski puts it.

It just so happened that Soeteber was by now the first female metro editor. That meant she had power. She beckoned the underling into her glass office and read him the riot act. To those in the newsroom, a significant point was made, even if one didn’t hear any of the actual words.

Soeteber shared traits with a male-dominated old guard, as I can attest from many very late nights out on the town with her and her husband, a novelist. But when she became a boss, there was change. As Harvard’s Lipinski puts it, “Routine sexism, so long a part of the newsroom culture, was no longer at home in her presence.”

And lest one think that the felling of prominent journalists is a new occurrence, Lipinski recalls a matter into which I was drawn as a fellow manager at the time. It involved clear indiscretions with a teenager visiting the paper by Bob Greene, then a star and well-compensated columnist. By now, Lipinski was the newspaper’s first female editor-in-chief.

After an investigation, his resignation was accepted. That was 2002. There was nobody bigger at the paper than Bob, who was a national presence in print and on television. But a line had been crossed and the boss at the top would not countenance such behavior.

Lipinski believes it would be misguided to consider anybody who’s stood against misogyny in journalism – or anywhere else, I might add – as “merely standing against something.”

Another story she recalls involves a male deputy of Soeteber who looked at a new intern and declared, “She looks like a woman of many tastes.”

Seriously? Boy. Soeteber rebuked him for that comment. “To witness a woman in command respond so unflinchingly was a powerful management lesson for me – a lesson in standing for something and a #MeToo every newsroom manager should aspire to,” Lipinski writes. “She didn’t vanquish harassment, and neither did I, but she set new standards that obligated us all.”

I showed Lipinski’s piece to Suzanne Muchin, a Chicago branding expert and corporate consultant who co-hosts a great podcast on business and culture called “The Big Payoff.”

“I think we are moving from sledgehammer, shock-and-awe reporting on this issue to the stage where a more refined tool kit is needed for this public conversation. What’s important is that the conversation continues, which is why more voices with more nuance are needed. This article is a good example of that – another angle of entry that puts forward some point excellent questions that need more reflection and discourse.”

Muchin notes how we think we know these people because we see and hear them so often, at least on television. And they seem such “nice guys.” So it can be oddly easier to empathize with them than some anonymous (to most of us) individual who is alleging misconduct. It’s convoluted but also pretty typical.

Women, for sure, are not a vertical and don’t speak with one voice or behave with one set of rules. Lipinski and our late friend, Soeteber, were very different. They didn’t act with the same set or rules or lead their lives the same way.

But, as Muchin underscored to me Wednesday, “If you go up in altitude to the higher level question of the workplace conditions that allow for the abuses to take place, I would suggest that women are less likely to create those conditions, and that is the result of both nature and nurture.”

It’s a point that Lipinski ends her own piece with, via a thought from her daughter, who asked her if she thought female bosses are more likely to hear the voices of the harassed and take action. The mom asked the daughter what she thought, eliciting the smart response, “We lose those voices at the bottom when there’s no one to advocate for them at the top.”

But this also entails hard work, as Muchin reminded me. “The missing ingredient is absolutely the belief that a culture of zero tolerance will be supported by both those ‘upstairs’ (board members, investors) as well as the marketplace (customers, consumers).”

It’s why I think the decisions being made to fire the likes of Lauer are important, as they highlight a growing recognition that there is a greater liability to inaction than action. And this is only growing, it seems, by the day. Or maybe it’s by the minute.

I write in the sun-filled atrium of the graduate school of business at the University of Chicago. Giant portrait photos of Nobel Prize winners line the walls. And, all around me, sipping their Starbucks, huddled in conversation, typing away at their laptops, are surely future leaders of business and government. They’re from all over the world (mostly men on this morning).

They’ll be in charge one day. So tell me this: What will they do when they have real power?

Source: US News