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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IF YOU DON’T GET THIS, WE HAVE A PROBLEM

Are We At A Tipping Point?

[I write this missive to my daughter with the hopes that one day she will read and perhaps learn something about me and our times, but also come to understand the conflict, the setbacks, the inspiration, the tenacity and focus that goes into pushing a society from thinking one way to ACTING another.]

I am weary. Yet another story.  Last night, U.K. Defence Secretary Michael Fallon resigned saying his standards in the past have “clearly fallen short” of those standards required of the Armed Forces, which he represents.  The story circulating publicly pertains to a 2002 incident in which he repeatedly put his hand on a journalist’s knee. This, on the heels of an allegation by a brave young woman who says she was raped by someone senior within the Labour Party and was “warned” against pursuing the claim.  And add to that Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Mark Halperin, who have been accused of sexual harassment.  The floodgates have opened.  The amount of accusers suggests this lewd and gross misconduct was happening frequently and – by the sound of it – all of LA/DC/London seemed to have some inkling that these men were particularly slimy with younger people left alone in their lecherous hands. These men used their positions of power and influence to prey on and victimize those subordinate to them.  And I am saddened, but rueful and cynical. I talk to my women friends and many of us have the same reaction.  These revelations are not new (Bill Clinton, Dominic Strauss Kahn, Roger Ailes, Clarence Thomas, Senator Packwood, the list goes on…). We all assume Fallon resigned because there is more to the story or there are other women who have yet to come forward (“It can’t be just touching a woman’s knee?! Seriously? There must be more”).  We have all worked hard for 20 + years in careers that inevitably brought us face to face with sexual innuendo and inappropriate behaviour and yes, sexual harassment by the textbook, legal definition. If you asked any one of us “was it wrong?” we would say absolutely, yes. Firmly, without a doubt. None of my female friends, family, and colleagues are shrinking violets. We are successful career women with families who do the juggle, the dance, because we can and we want to. Are we fighters? Yes. Has it been easy? Hell, no. Should any one of us in any of our #MeToo moments have reported the incident and sought recourse? Probably. But we didn’t. And the answer to “Why not?” lies also in that deafening silence that many in Hollywood and Washington and elsewhere kept (men AND women alike).

Silence about bad behaviour does not mean acceptance. We get by with the tools given to us to make us fighters. To survive, one must always pick and choose battles.

How do I explain this to you? I am complicit in this. Perhaps I am a failure to you and your generation, I think. If any of the things that happened to any of these women – to me – happened to you, I’d be outraged. On the other hand, I was brought up by a strong mother (and father) who taught us how to be feisty, independent and fight for a place in the male-dominated workplace.  Some history and context here – we just went to see the movie Battle of the Sexes together, right? And I explained to you how bad the movie was on the broader issues, remember? The meaning of that one match was enormous to a generation of women and their daughters.  There were ERA marches on Capitol Hill, women were pushing for equal pay, equal rights in the workplace, it was the “women libbers” vs “male chauvinist pigs” who thought women should stay at home in the kitchen pregnant.  There was a palpable uprising in the air and I could feel the electricity in my mother as she lectured my sister and I about how “our generation will get what her generation missed – an opportunity to be anything a man could be.”  A gathering at our house watched that match. And I remember, as an impressionable 9-year old, how ecstatic and triumphant the women were when Billy Jean King won.  What I didn’t know –  because my Dad was right there with my Mom telling us men and women are intellectually equal – was that there was an undercurrent of tension and resentment (probably rooted in fear of change, of upsetting the ‘status quo’) amongst men.  I now understand the term “feminists” rolled off these men’s tongues with a sneer.  Some of the younger men in the workplace at the time ended up being the older men I would work for once I graduated from university in 1986.  So the winds of change do not come overnight.

Back to now, or rather to 20 years ago when most of these incidents coming out now occurred. A new generation of women populated offices across the country. But the residual effects of an earlier generation still existed. As Brit Marling points out, it was only in 1974 that women could apply for credit cards in their own name. Financial independence and career women were newly on the scene in growing numbers. And they were moving up. And yet, the social and moral attitudes, culture and laws were still playing catch up.  If any one of us, at that time, had come forward, there would have been little – if any – recourse. The support systems and protection of the workplace would not have helped us. We would have been deemed annoying ‘troublemakers’ and become pariahs in our offices. We felt that our careers would stumble or fall if we spoke up, and if not immediately, then over time, we would be ousted.

We all do what we need to do, sometimes, to protect ourselves. But silence about bad behaviour does not mean acceptance. We get by with the tools given to us to make us fighters, to make us tough. To survive, one must always pick and choose battles.  I was part of this system.  My story is no different, although far less invasive than some of the horror stories I’ve heard.  In my late 20s, a powerful and well-known man in Washington circles who was far senior to me (same industry but we did not work at the same place), followed me into an empty elevator. He shoved me up against the wall and attempted to grope and kiss me. Thoroughly disgusted and nauseous, I kneed him in the groin, told him angrily and firmly to STOP, and quickly got out of the elevator.  I knew what was right and wrong. I had never liked this guy and my spider-sense always told me he was a slimy, nasty piece of work.  He was physically overpowering to my 5 ft. 6 and a half, slim frame.  But there was no way I was going to be a ‘victim’. And it’s that toughness, that fighter, that absolute belief in my convictions, that told me to fight back quickly and swiftly and extricate myself from that situation.  But did I tell anyone? Did I do anything about this? I told some male and female friends in my circle. I might have even told my boss. But I knew making any sort of waves would jeopardize my career.  And that was more important to me. I left with my dignity intact.  I was not physically harmed. I had amazing opportunities with my career ahead of me. I was just beginning to be taken seriously as an adult. I was finally coming into my own as a career woman, and this was not going to stop me. I was luckier than other women (and men) whose stories we are hearing now. But I wonder whether they were thinking something similar when faced with the dilemma: Do I tell?

Millennials are outraged at things we all used to tolerate. Does this moral intolerance present an opportunity for change that should be harnessed?

 

So here we are in 2017.  Are we at a tipping point? Has society caught up? Are there stronger social and support mechanisms in place to handle this swiftly, cleanly, justly?  A confession: I am not a fan of the Millennials. Yet here is a question to ponder.  Does the constant moral outrage of Millennials present an opportunity for change that should be harnessed? I have watched as this new generation, these so-called “snowflakes”, melt at the first sign of offence or insult. I hear from friends in the States that it’s a phenomenon sweeping the country – safe zones for virtually every individual on college campuses – university professors insulting kids in class without knowing what they’ve done wrong.  Here in the U.K. it’s catching on too: At Oxford, professors send out announcements and alerts about matter being discussed in class ahead of time, just in case anyone might be offended by the subject and not want to come.  To me, the pendulum has swung too far. We will all be walking on eggshells soon, but then who will defend the eggshells? Don’t they deserve a safe-zone too? I don’t know where it will stop but I find we’ve raised a generation of ‘bubble’ kids and I’m not sure what has happened to the toughness we grew up with in the 70s.

The Millennials are outraged at things we all used to tolerate.  But, perhaps we have just enough of the older generations moving out and the younger generations moving in that the scales have tipped to favour the young and all that they bring to the workplace. Perhaps this over-sensitivity will have its positives, namely 100% intolerance to sexual harassment in the workplace.  I don’t know the answer, but I am willing to be convinced.  [And if so, PLEASE could we have this same confluence of influence, generational change and intolerance for the gun control issue too?]

It could be the timing is right (as my brilliant friend Muriel Demarcus points out, timing is everything). US Labour website says nearly 47 percent of U.S. workers are women (74.6 million of us toiling away), and women own close to 10 million businesses.  70% of mothers with children participate in the work force. And very interesting: Mothers are the primary or sole earners for 40 percent of households with children under 18 today, compared with 11 percent in 1960.  Men are more enlightened now, having lived and worked side by side with a growing workforce of women for 40 years.

So I think we must strike while the iron is hot.  Some friends back home fear this new movement will cause a backlash amongst men who will be pushed to resent women working in the office and boardrooms. My husband says just the opposite. As he rightly points out, the majority of men out there are the good guys. They are the ones we have relied on, been supported by, and who live by the same moral codes. He says “if there is backlash, it’s likely to be amongst the older generation of men who are dinosaurs now. And they need to learn to moderate their language and behaviour, or retire.” That’s that. Change is good. And he feels most men aged 20-40, even up to 50, will feel the same.

I believe the confluence of our transitional generation, who grew up in the 70s and 80s along with the newer millennials is the perfect marriage for true and lasting change in our society.  Left alone, both sides would flounder.  We older folks are too cynical and jaded. I have one friend who works in finance who laughs when telling me she consistently fails her company’s “sensitivity” test because she doesn’t push “RED” (out of options Green = Acceptable, Yellow = Borderline, and Red = Unacceptable, Needs To Be Reported) when she should. She said if she pushed RED when they suggest, she would have to probably report something at least once a month, if not once a week.  On the other hand, Snowflakes cry out at the slightest, often most unintentional, slight. I know someone else who was going into a lunch meeting with Millennials and as the meeting was starting he said “I should have ordered a salad. I need to lose weight.” As the meeting closed, a young lady pulled him aside scolding him, saying she was offended by his comment. He was flabbergasted.  When explained, he was inadvertently maligning fat people. So I think we can help each other. We bring the years of experience and examples to share. Millennials bring their unswerving moral centre. This could be good.