May 15, 2011

Good 'ol boys at the top

The latest news about Dominique Strauss-Kahn's alleged sexual assault of a New York hotel maid is typically shocking, and typically it will go down as another isolated incident. There will be no connection between what has now become a criminal matter and what goes on in capitals and international centers every single day. Strauss-Kahn, as it happens, is head of the International Monetary Fund and WAS the leading prospect to challenge French President Nicolas Sarkozy in next year's election. (He might still have a future in Italian politics...)

Strauss-Kahn's previous affair with a subordinate did not cost him either job, though Paul Wolfowitz had a similar complication that did force him to leave as head of the World Bank (especially when he awkwardly pulled strings on her behalf). Israel's former President Moshe Katsav is currently awaiting his appeal, having been convicted of raping and assaulting women right in his office. NGOs (non-governmental organizations) are also susceptible to this institutional culture.

When the men at the top have no sense of propriety, and their behavior goes unreported (as it so often does), public campaigns against sexual harassment and even sex trafficking ring hollow. What impact can they possibly have, and what hope does a female lawyer or economist have of getting the same consideration as her male colleagues?

Until earlier this month, the United States Senate tolerated a member who had an affair with his chief of staff's wife, even after he leaned on government contractors to throw him business and misreported a $100,000 cash gift to the couple. Another conservative Senator, who turned up on the customer list of the "D.C. Madame", is still serving and still preaching "family values" (but then, he is from Louisiana).

Progress is being made, but the long term is not enough. Women have a right to expect fairness and respect in the workplace TODAY. There should be zero tolerance for sexual harassment and for patterns of sexual assault -- chances are, if Strauss-Kahn did this in one hotel, he's done it elsewhere (lesson learned: don't mess with New York). All it takes is genuine effort at the top -- but look who's at the top of the ladders...

The United Nations has committed major resources and convened global conferences to advance women. All the conventions and working groups and platforms are meaningless if leaders and managers do not enforce a code of conduct and set an example.

It's about time.

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