Just this morning, President Donald J. Trump stated that, “It’s a very scary time for young men in America when you can be guilty of something you may not be guilty of. This is a very difficult time.” In a similar vein, panelists at the first Dean’s Executive Forum on Oct. 2 at 7 p.m. discussed stereotypes regarding sexual assault and appropriate workplace behavior.
Introduced by the Dolan School of Business dean Zhan Li, the event was moderated by Dr. Lisa Mainiero, and included a panel consisting of Rachel Lieberman, senior vice president and chief counsel of Synchrony Financial, Patricia M. Nazemetz, who specializes in executive transitions with a talent agency background and Simon Fenner, managing director of Lukoil Pan Americas, LLC.
The event, which counted as an first-year experience inspire credit, was crowded mostly with students, but included a number of faculty members as well. Mainiero began with an opening statement emphasizing that, “We’re not talking about sex today. What we’re talking about is the abuse of power.” After giving a statement about each of the panelists’ qualifications, she began to ask her prepared questions.
The panel began by touching on the hearing regarding Dr. Christine Blasey Ford and Brett Kavanaugh. The panel compared the emotional toll and trauma that Ford still deals with today with the righteous anger from Kavanaugh and the wide spectrum of emotions they displayed. One of the key issues that could arise from this is if the heightened media scrutiny surrounding the case increases or decreases the amount of sexual harassment reports in the workplace. Nazmetz spoke from a Human Resources perspective and believes that there won’t be an increase in reports. Simon further stated that the spectacle of the testimony may cause people to not want to come out.
As it was within the context of the Dolan School of Business, the focus was primarily on sexual harassment in the corporate workforce and what constitutes a “hostile work environment.” Nazemetz was again able to volunteer her expertise from her HR background, clearly defining a hostile work environment as one that interferes with a woman’s ability to be successful in the workplace, which may not always come from a place of inappropriate sexual behavior. This was a point contrasted with Lieberman’s legal perspective and the idea of “quid pro quo”, or “this for that”, where women in the past were made to participate in unwanted sexual situations in order to further their careers.
This specific HR point of view was especially poignant for students like Gwen Mattia ‘20, who stated, “I’m interested in HR as a psychology major, so I really thought this panel would really resonate with me.” In response to how she felt to be entering the HR field based on topics that were discussed, she elaborated further: “I thought it was a great presentation, and I thought a lot of it needed to be said and needed to be addressed. It taught me to reward good business practices, it’s not always a ‘gotcha’ kind of thing. You have to be the police in some ways, but you also need to reward people who do a good job and I think that’s really important. I feel like it really educated me on what sexual harassment actually is in these big businesses and companies, and even though women have come so far in this day and age, it’s like the more things change the more things stay the same, and it’s up to HR to really handle that.”
The panel collectively made sure to highlight the fact that men are just as vulnerable to workplace harassment as women. Panelist Fenner, upon being asked if he had ever considered changing his behavior around women because of the effects of the #MeToo movement, responded, “I haven’t found it necessary to do that, mainly because I think team dynamics are very important; a lot of our business doesn’t take place in the office, it takes place outside.” He added, “You have to balance some things there, but you destroy the functionality of teams if you don’t have trust and you can’t deal with one another.” Students who attended the event also appreciated that this distinction was made.
“I came in and I wasn’t sure if it was going to be targeted toward a specific gender, and I liked how they brought up the male point of view, not just talking about women’s stuff,” First-year Dean Congiusta commented.
It was clear that, for the male students in the room, it was necessary and appreciated that a distinction was made not to place blame solely on men for this behavior. “From the beginning, I was a little confused about one thing, which I got to ask [one of the panelists], and it was about, what if somebody makes a false accusation? How do they find out about that?…And she just made it clear that it’s a very very unlikely thing to happen,” Akbaru Niyonkuru ‘22 explained. He concluded, “You know it’s all over the news…it’s just good that we get to talk about these things.”
Workplace culture was another main aspect emphasized by those on the panel. “Culture starts at the top, with the norms, the policies and the procedures…the culture is so important in terms of your happiness, your values and abilities to succeed,” Mainiero stated, making a point of this especially.
Lieberman added to this topic, discussing the potential consequences of the #MeToo Movement and her worries that an “extreme overreaction…is going to create a backlash,” setting women back and potentially leading to further discrimination in the workplace.
Her advice, however, for those veering toward the extreme in how they are handling their behavior around women, was very simple: “If you treat people with respect and we’re professional, then there’s no reason for such extreme reactions. Plus, as a lawyer, if I find out that you didn’t mentor this woman, or you didn’t hire this woman, or you didn’t give this woman the opportunity to travel because of her gender…it’s clearly discrimination.”

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