Women Leaders Discuss Changing the Culture after #MeToo

Speakers at the annual Women’s Leadership Conference addressed the need to repair a broken culture by putting more women in positions of power.

April 2, 2019

Grace Speights

GW Trustee Grace Speights discussed the importance of cultivating an inclusive workplace culture during the Women's Leadership Conference. (Sydney Elle Gray/GW Today)

By Briahnna Brown

The #MeToo movement has been a catalyst for change in workplace environments in every sector, and the Women’s Leadership Conference on Friday explored how women in leadership can help positively shift the culture.

Grace Speights, J.D. ’82 and a member of the George Washington University Board of Trustees, spoke during the luncheon about corporate and organizational culture in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Ms. Speights, who has been nominated to chair the Board of Trustees, said that well-intentioned and well-written anti-harassment policies are useless if they are not carried out in practice, which requires a workplace culture that encourages the implementation of those policies.

She added that moving forward, the key to preventing sexual harassment and assault in the workplace is to cultivate a workplace culture where that behavior is unwelcome.

"If we are going to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace, any type of harassment in the workplace, it is key for employers to make sure their culture is one of being safe, inclusive and respectful," Ms. Speights said. "The #MeToo movement is real, it has set a new paradigm for employers, and I am confident, from what I'm seeing in the workplace, that it is here to stay."  

Hosted by GW and the Elizabeth J. Somers Women’s Leadership Program (WLP), the annual Women’s Leadership Conference brings together students, faculty, staff and alumnae to discuss important topics in women’s leadership.

The WLP honored two alumnae of Mount Vernon College during the conference. Elizabeth Orlando, MVC ’87, was recognized for her international volunteerism work with the U.S. Department of State and her work to facilitate humane global initiatives. Harjinder Gill, MVC ’99, M.P.H. ’18, was recognized for her work in the finance and health care sector where she helped develop nation-wide and state-wide health insurance initiatives with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The conference also tackled changing the culture by getting more women involved in politics. Stephanie Schriock, M.A. ’97, president of EMILY’s List, an organization that works to get pro-choice women elected to office, talked about her organization’s growing fundraising efforts in recent years.

In the weeks after the 2016 election, more than 1,000 women came to EMILY’s List, motivated to learn how they could run for office and make a difference at many levels of government. Today, there are a record number of women serving in Congress after the 2018 midterm elections, many of whom received funding with the help of EMILY’s List. Ms. Schriock said having these women as leaders in policy is “the beginning of the century of women.”

"For 33 years there wasn’t a flow of women candidates coming to us, we were going out, sitting at kitchen tables, encouraging women to run for office, even just to ponder, across every state and every community in this country,” Ms. Schriock said. “This was a pretty big deal, and that 1,000 has now turned into over 46,000 women across this country who have raised their hand and said 'I want to run.'"

Ms. Schriock said that the growth of women in political offices across the country is the result of intentional work to actively recruit women in target races after EMILY’s List does the polling and research work to help mobilize voters, and the work to train women to run and staff campaigns to succeed. “At every decision-making table in our lives, we need to ensure our voices are being heard,” she said.

“It is going to take all of us—women and men—using our voices and making our best, most intentional effort to see this through to completion—to parity,” Ms. Schriock said. “That will not just transform our politics, that will transform our society and our world."

The conference also hosted a panel on next steps after #MeToo, which was moderated by former GW trustee Cynthia Steele Vance, MVC '79. Panelists included University of Virginia politics professor Jennifer Lawless, journalist and women's rights activist Megan Beyer, foreign service officer Heera Kamboj, B.A. '05, Virginia state Del. Kathy Tran (D) and Jennifer Porter, M.P.H. ’15, the executive director of Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Office on Women’s Policy and Initiatives. The panel focused on how women could prevail in a “broken culture” and help contribute to fixing the culture by supporting each other. Ms. Porter spoke during the panel to the generational aspects of a broken culture that encourages women to overcompensate within an oppressive culture.

Ms. Porter noted that successful women have historically suffered through that oppression without being able to create a work-life balance. She said the young women in the audience have an opportunity to show what balance looks like and change the culture for the better.

“When we talk about #MeToo and women's role within the system of oppression, within the system of being victimized, we get to say, 'this is not ok' and we get to stand up for not being ok,” Ms. Porter said. “It's ok to not be ok, we get to check in with each other and ask those questions and say, not ‘what's wrong with you,’ but, ‘what happened to you.’

“We get to say, ‘I need a day and it's ok for me to need a day and still be able to be in my career and be a rock star.’”