If we really want to address sexual harassment, we must acknowledge that it's culture, not policy, that affects how people behaveby Julian Baggini / February 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
Scandals follow a set trajectory. After the hysteria and the opportunistic attacks on anyone associated with the guilty parties—in the case of Oxfam, which has been accused of allowing widespread exploitation of women, that means “neo-colonialist” NGOs and bleeding heart liberals—there will be more sober discussions of how we can make sure this will never happen again. Recommendations will be made for changes in policies and procedures.
But already it seems clear that inadequate processes were not the source of the problem, although they were part of it. The word that has been used most frequently to describe the source of Oxfam’s malaise is its “culture.”
To take just a few examples. Former aid worker Shaista Aziz has written that the whole foreign aid sector suffered from “a culture where bullying was rife, women were frequently belittled and racism was casual.” Former Secretary of State for International Development Priti Patel has talked of a “culture of denial.” A confidential report on the incidents written by Oxfam in 2011 describes “a culture of impunity.”
Wherever there is scandal, it is rooted in culture. Take the sexual harassment that has come to light in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations. Many have talked of the Hollywood “culture of silence” that stopped victims speaking out. The New York Attorney General legal suit against Weinstein’s production company described its “Culture of Harassment and Intimidation.”
But what exactly is “culture”? “Culture” is the corporate equivalent of “character.” Just as individuals habitually behave in certain ways, good and bad, so an organisations exhibits a distinctive pattern of behaviour that reflects its ethos.
The sources of defects in a corporate culture are often very similar to the sources of character flaws.
For example, organisations are as vulnerable as individuals to what psychologists call “confirmation bias,” or “myside bias,” in which we judge ourselves more generously than we judge others, discounting evidence that doesn’t fit our preconceptions.
It is extremely difficult to be honest about failings that would be obvious in others, and to justify them as to ourselves.
For NGOs, this is compounded by the phenomenon of moral licensing: when doing good makes people feel more entitled to do other things that are bad, as though they have earned moral credit to be spent on vice.
NGOs are particularly prone to this as their very raison d’être…