SEXUAL HARASSMENT: LET’S SEE THE FOREST FOR THE TREES

We all feared there would be backlash. The pendulum swung too far too quickly.  Many women friends and I discussed the predicted confusion for men in the workplace as all these stories emerged and suspected they would throw their hands up.

I am from the older generation of women that Lucinda Franks wrote about in the New York Times.  We toughed it out to prove ourselves. We needed to be and act like men to get ahead. We were on our own. I’m so in line with what she said that my uncle emailed me saying he thought I could have written it (yes, Dear Uncle, apart from that small detail of she being a Pulitzer-prize winner). Regardless, we all imagined men fleeing to the hills saying “Who needs women in the workplace? Why bother?”

Normal, average people wouldn’t even fathom acting this way so it’s hard for us to comprehend

What we didn’t predict was where the backlash would come from.  “Bad feminists” and “Good feminists” are squabbling amongst themselves as demonstrated, surprisingly, by Margaret Atwood, who I have deep respect for. In her piece this weekend,  Am I a Bad Feminist?, she defensively uses far too much ink on one (1) wrongly accused man, rather than discuss the overwhelming evidence of police reports worldwide that show more often than not, women who come forward are not heard or listened to. Globally, justice does not prevail for women.  Sadly, this was a case of trying to do the right thing and it back-fired. A one-off.  Wish she’d spent a little more time with her power & influence to turn the conversation forward.

In other instances, we are getting bogged down by semantics. We are name-calling. We should not be lumping together any and all complaint — that will muddy the waters.  There are too many accounts that are sidetracking the true issues to name, so here are a few from just the last few days to really confound you: the ultra-feminist website Babe publishing an expose of Aziz Ansari , Liam Neeson bemoaning the “witch hunt”,  France’s pushback against #MeToo.

CALL FOR CLARITY

Let’s try to see the forest for the trees. We need clarity for this movement to work. We must divide the issues into different buckets and address each one separately. We should not confuse assault with an off-colour joke. Dating a direct line-manager gets into unchartered territory that needs defined guidelines. Equal pay and office bullying are side-issues that are absolutely worth discussing, but best to start with narrow, focused goals.

As part of a women’s group dedicated to solving these problems, we are just starting to identify them, and it will take months of study and analysis before we can unlock effective and long-lasting solutions. But let’s start with assuming that we are talking about the workplace, or work-related scenarios (and not some chance encounter of someone famous, as recounted in the NYT retelling of Aziz Ansari’s date that went badly).

Unraveling this piece by piece, we have the obvious:

SEXUAL ASSAULT & SEXUAL HARASSMENT — The jokes regarding certain alleged (and in Louis CK’s case) admitted behaviour have already started. As if it isn’t really real — just something to laugh at now because it’s so absurd.  Let’s be clear: This did happen. There is no scenario where pulling your penis out and rubbing it against a woman or masterbating in front of women or pinning a woman down on a couch while kissing and groping, or grabbing her private parts without warning without consent is acceptable.

Normal, average, everyday people – men and women – wouldn’t even fathom acting in this way so it’s hard for us to comprehend. It’s easier for us to assume the stories are exaggerated rather than realise we are part of a larger societal problem that buried our heads in the sand for years.  I have heard some of the stories and they are horrific and most important, criminal offences.  In some, the women are petite and the men are physically overpowering. In others the women are young and impressionable and the men are Gods in the office, bringing in the big bucks for the networks or film studios.

The Definition of Sexual Harassment:  Here in the UK (and probably similar in the US) sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act of 2010 and is defined as such:

Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which:

  • violates your dignity
  • makes you feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated
  • creates a hostile or offensive environment

You don’t need to have previously objected to someone’s behaviour for it to be considered unwanted.

Again, pretty clear-cut. But I suspect sexual harassment videos, educational and role-playing seminars in workplaces would be helpful. In the past, at all my places of employment, we sat through various HR seminars on discrimination, drug use, and sexual harassment with a sort of giggle and swagger like we were back in 8th grade and the teacher was teaching us how to put a condom on a banana.  Now, I think (I hope) they will be taken more seriously.

THE GREY AREAS

The grey areas are the ones we really need to nail down. Here are some that need delving into more:

DATING A DIRECT SUPERIOR/LINE-MANAGER — Back in the 1950s, my Southern belle mother arrived in NYC at “Manny Hanny” (the investment bank Manufacturer’s Hanover) working her way up to Head Librarian in the Research Department (2018 equivalent might be Head of Research/Duodiligence) by the time she was 26. My Dad was a Cornell grad recently arrived in the bank’s training program.  He was often found in the Research Dept unnecessarily and when their dating became serious and obvious, they knew one of them would have to leave as company policy stated interoffice dating wasn’t allowed.  What they weren’t prepared for was that Manufacturer’s Hanover management asked my Dad to leave, as he was one of many Ivy league trainees, whereas my Mom’s invaluable expertise and management skills over a team of women researchers was indispensable.  Don’t take my word for it, this policy was common practice: In George Clooney’s movie, Good Night and Good Luck, they portray 2 people dating in a 1950s newsroom.

It’s easier to assume the stories are exaggerated than to realise we are part of a societal problem

Of course, we’ve come a long way since then, but interoffice dating is a very tricky, grey area (at least in my mind and various polling). This is where I think research and study will help going forward.  If there is a married older “company” man in the office who is powerful and prominent, and he pursues aggressively a relationship with a younger, impressionable employee who may or may not be directly line-driven by him, but who knows that any move she makes will have huge repercussions for the office, what are the rules or guidelines here? What is her recourse? What if the person is not married but in charge of bonuses and the underling doesn’t want to be punished financially if she doesn’t respond accordingly? What if two people date, break up, and then the underling is in line for a promotion that the superior has a say in?

There are many scenarios that need fleshing out, but clearly defined rules and guidelines are a must.

OFFICE POLITICAL MACHINE — All too often, I heard from various women that they did not know who to turn to. They did not know their rights and were afraid of ruining their careers. At other times, women DID reach out to superior men AND women in the offices and were met with resistance or, shockingly, completely ignored. The change here should be swift: Put into place a sexual harassment ombudsman (for lack of a better term) or ombudswoman. Someone whose sole purpose is to field the various victims who come forward; someone who will investigate claims, work the alleged accusation through a proper system and chain of command. No one is above or beneath the law. Power and prestige in the office is invisible. The time for Non-Disclosure Agreements and pay-offs is over.

Additionally, there should be some set of rules or guidelines in place for AFTER an inquiry — whether it comes to fruition or not. The accuser is not a pariah in the office. She/he should not be sidelined or marginalised.  This is discrimination.  Again, I think more research and outside expertise would be helpful.

the-abuse-of-power-n

IDENTIFYING SEXUAL PREDATORS — In a previous post I wrote about men as sexual predators (towards children and women and other men). This is a societal issue but as Arthur in the previous piece said “the time is right to do something now. It’s an appropriate moment in society”. He also said that the man who assaulted him as a child was “facilitated by a system that encouraged silence.” And that men like his abuser were “in a position of power and authority and gain/gratification was taking away the power of others.”  Finally, the experts on the program who study sexual predators said “underlings are powerless to do anything and predators know this.” Arthur went to police in 2003 and was ignored. He went back this past year and this time, the police listened. His abuser was sentenced to 4 years in jail last week.

Remember, we are not talking about someone who made an off-colour remark about a woman’s blouse or her lipstick (although that is something to address). We are talking about men who repeatedly, over 20 years in some cases, harassed or assaulted women (or men) in the workplace.  I cannot imagine that this kind of behaviour could have gone on without the knowledge of others around them. We need to identify men who cannot cope with power or who have serious predatory behaviour, however subtle or secretive. Identifying men like this is important to set the tone and morale of the office.  If others knew these men were doing things and getting away with it, what message does that send everyone else?

It’s the very nature of television news and Hollywood that these stories are fascinating to a larger audience and garnering attention. Do you think we’d be having this conversation if Joe Public from the accounting dept. was harassing women? Or if Jim X on the factory floor was assaulting underlings? We should not be fooled. The stories I heard relate to the headlines, but they are happening everywhere.

So, yes, if you see women in news and Hollywood picking up the flag and marching forward its because we have a unique voice and opportunity to change society globally.  We risk shooting ourselves in the foot if we lose focus, bite off more than we can chew, or in-fight. Let us not cripple the momentum.  We must prove that our earlier worries were unwarranted — that this #MeToo movement would harm us in the end.

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