By Gloria Feldt
Issue 83 — February 5, 2019
Pity the poor men whose lives have been complicated by women seeking to work without being sexually harassed.
If you’ve been in the world of women’s rights for more than a minute, you’ve known that for every step forward women make in the workplace or society, there will be an attempt to push us back to the previous, more comfortable state.
And just as surely we will be blamed for causing the discomfort that social disruptions inevitably trigger. This despite the fact that we seek only for men to “take their feet from off our necks and permit us to stand upright” as the 19th century feminist and abolitionist Sarah Grimke and later Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously said.
(My favorite tweet recently, showing how women are going forward to seek leadership roles despite backlash.)
It wasn’t long after women began declaring that they weren’t going to tolerate harassment in the workplace that articles began to appear in which men are portrayed as the victims of the sea change being wrought by women who seek merely to be allowed to pursue their professional ambitions and earn a living on an equal playing field.
The #MeToo movement was initiated by Tarana Burke in 2006 and exploded in late 2017, first by allegations of sexual abuse and harassment by Harvey Weinstein and followed by a landslide of allegations of sexual misconduct by powerful men in all industries. One after another powerful men toppled as women gained the collective courage to come forward. This in turn prompted the #TimesUp initiative, and all manner of symbolic declarations that this is a new day for women in the world.
Darn tootin’ men’s behavior has to change. The logic that because men must reevaluate and alter behavior that was accepted in the past, they are now justified in refusing to meet with or mentor women in the workplace simply won’t wash.
I recently was asked to make a speech about “After #metoo.” I asked the audience these questions:
1. Would the women who have never experienced sexual harassment or abuse stand up? Only one did.
2. Would the men stand up who can say you have never engaged in any behavior that could be considered sexual harassment or more? Only two or three did.
This was an honest group.
(Why can’t men just behave as they were taught in kindergarten? Then they wouldn’t have to worry. I think this is an excuse.)
Here’s the deal. When men assume a level of privilege that leads to misuse of power in the form of sexual harassment, the consequences for women are profound. They stand back and self-limit. They devalue themselves because they have been devalued, reduced to pieces of meat or eye candy.
Sexual objectification, harassment, and abuse are about power, not about sex.
If others can objectify you, this gets into your head; it causes you to be risk averse, not to hold up your hand or raise your authentic voice. Your humanity is eviscerated. You will never achieve equality because you have the enemy living in your head telling you that you are unworthy. Your power goes from inside to outside of yourself and your intentionality is lower than the man next you because he knows he owns the world and you know only the world’s limitations.
To overcome this pattern, it’s essential that men and women work together as the equals they are in intelligence, skills, and capabilities.
So why can’t men simply employ what they learned in kindergarten about how to treat people to people who are women?
Vaughn Keller, an organizational consultant and a man I consider a mentor of mine pointed out to me in response to that question that even in non-workplace situations and without power imbalances, signaling sexual interest is complex and can be misunderstood by either party. Assigning blame, he notes, is not productive, but assuming best intentions can be.
I am convinced that most men and women today believe intellectually that defining and outlawing sexual assault and harassment, and giving credibility to women who allege them, is the right thing to do. The stuck place is the unwillingness to address the root causes and change behavior.
Companies are throwing millions at organizations that support women who have been abused in penance for their leaders’ bad behavior. Yet as long as women are looked at as victims, feet stay on their necks and women remain “in their place.”
Giving aid to a woman who has been abused is noble, but creating a culture in which no woman or man is abused, and where women are afforded the respect of mentorship, is transformational. That transformation can only occur when men and women see themselves as equals in all aspects of life, and certainly in the workplace.
More importantly, since men still hold the majority of powerful leadership positions, it’s incumbent on them to lead the way toward a more equal workplace. David G. Smith, PhD, professor of sociology in the Department of National Security Affairs at the United States Naval War College and the co-author of Athena Rising: How and Why Men Should Mentor Women explains why in this Harvard Business Review article.
Women are changing the world. Patricia Jerido, Fara Warner, and I are celebrating a good day’s work preparing for this week’s launch of Take The Lead’s 50 Women Can Change the World in Journalism program.
Sexual tension is real — and you can work together productively nevertheless.
Flash: it is possible to have dinner with someone without hopping into bed with her or him. A powerful man can mentor, advise, or sponsor a woman without harassing her. And if you do harass, it’s not her fault. You are responsible for stating your intentions and managing your actions.
Smith offers this tip for men who genuinely want to create more inclusive workplace cultures: “First, recognize that talented women mentees have to be challenged and receive critical feedback and that this can be delivered in a way that demonstrates empathy, commitment, and unconditional regard. Second, being genuine and showing humility is often a gateway to developing a mentoring relationship without pretense. Finally, excellent mentors understand their mentees’ strengths and weaknesses, and work to develop their mentees through providing opportunities and challenges that may be uncomfortable, but enable a mentee to grow their confidence and skills as they progress toward their career goals and dreams.”
How hard is that, gentlemen?
I tell women there are no excuses for them not to embrace their power and seek leadership roles. In that same light, there are no excuses for men not to mentor women so they can fully contribute the leadership potential organizations so desperately need.