Is sexism a part of your organisation’s values? If it’s how your people behave, the answer is yes

Women's rights rally

The March 4 Justice event in Perth. Photographer: Mia Tarantini.

Federal politics. Private schools. Law firms. It feels like every day reveals another allegation of sexism, sexual harassment and worse. And, following close behind the claims are shocked utterances from people in those organisations saying, “this doesn’t reflect our values”.

I’ve got a news flash. Most simply put, values are ‘how we do things around here’. They show up as behaviours and shape the experience people have both in and around the organisation.

Meaning, if sexism is what people experience, then it is part of your values — no matter what your website or organisational brochures say.

The nature of the past week’s exposés is shocking. Still, the disconnect between what people say and how they behave is unsurprising to anyone who works with organisations on values. Too often, they are a little more than a laundry list of aspirational image statements untethered from day-to-day reality. 

Outside of politics, one of the high profile examples is Wesley College. There are seven values on its website, including: “Care for the emotional and social wellbeing of everyone in our community”.

By any measure, recent allegations suggest the behaviour of many is at odds with that statement.

When the values do hold, failure to manage the danger when one goes too far means they can flip to something toxic and darker. With even the most altruistic values at risk.

Using another Wesley College example, it’s easy to imagine saying “we value the individual talents and worth of each person” could flip to entitlement and arrogance — along the way becoming fodder for precisely the kinds of allegations leveraged against boys at the school.

To his credit, Wesley College principal Nick Evans has acknowledged to parents and the broader community that the school has work to do, saying, “We must face it with honesty, courage and a willingness to confront hard truths.”

This will hopefully lead to a greater understanding of what holds true.

Still, a gaping chasm stands between knowing what a value means, using it to guide how you do things and encouraging others to do the same. 

The challenge was captured by Brisbane College student Mason Black, with his Captain’s Address taking the stance many would welcome from more seasoned leaders:

“It means standing up to any man, no matter how big they are if we see it happening, and we have to keep our mates accountable, no matter where it may be.

Each and every one of us have an obligation to each other to not follow the ways of the past, and to take our future on a new path.”

What’s next will depend on how deeply people are willing to look. 

I hope people avoid the ‘new values’ trap, because it won’t help. The problem isn’t the values, it is failing to interrogate the boundaries and what might happen if it goes too far.

All organisations — including small businesses — need to think beyond the sound bite and carefully constructed words. Meanings are only helpful if you also know what it isn’t, and when it goes too far. 

Actual values show up in how people treat each other, in what they choose to do or not do. It’s true for schools, politicians, businesses, every organisation and the people in them.

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