When will Sexual Harassment stop?
Pandora’s Box is currently open and what is being released seems ugly yet disturbingly obvious. To an extent, we all share a common feeling of shame at semi – knowing the news coming out about sexual abuse already.
It has taken a while to emerge because we have collectively created a hostile environment of judgement and name calling, where the victims of abuse carried out by powerful men are made to feel afraid and hesitant about coming forward. There was nowhere to hide. Now there is #metoo. Before today, there was only the fear of public ridicule, of another close encounter in a lift or of suffering career aspiration damage.
Harvey Weinstein, Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Roger Ailes are up there. And now Kevin Spacey, Louis CK and a stream of unsavoury characters from British Parliament are emerging to upset us further. Again, it is less the shock, rather the confirmation of our collective semi-knowing of the on-going and systemic abuse of position, power and privilege.
No longer can we comfort ourselves that this was mostly just weird victimless perversion, the vice of old men with silk ropes and whips. Now with the #metoo campaign, the victims have found their collective voice. The people are now listening and this will be a day of reckoning for some.
Can we dream of a better world now? Would it be that difficult for the elite to give up their political and financial dominance in order to quash a grotesque trade in requests for sexual access in return for career opportunity?
Obviously those holding the power seem to think so. Vast money and airtime are being spent perpetuating myths around the benefits of young women and powerful old men continuing to work together with all the associated side deals staying in place. Perhaps a simple and healthy alternative narrative is too terrifying and threatening for them to contemplate.
Imagine a world that is economically gender neutral and, in particularly, where jobs are deemed gender free – women can be plumbers, top chefs and physicists, men can be dancers and nurses and no one blinks.
That would take a big shift in our collective memory, overturning a vast vault made up of millions of exposures to belittling sentences, limiting judgements and gender stereotyping images coming at us via press, TV and film.
Imagine a world where the household chores are distributed evenly. A world where care work, domestic work or work traded for salaries were valued as equally significant, equally valid and equally worthy of acknowledgement.
The flip side benefit of this would move beyond Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” where women are subtly asked to become more like men and fill the boardroom with mini – Margaret Thatchers. Instead the testosterone count would be replaced by a pleasant creative and innovating environment where thought based productivity replaced stressed robotic computer terminal template filling sitting silently in a soul destroying open plan office the size of half a football pitch.
How do we know we have not got it right? Sexist banter, prejudice, Christmas party transgressions, the trade in career enhancement for sexual favours, the casting couch, the old propositioning the young simply because the job market is tight and competitive and they can, and the concept of allowing groping hands in the company lift continuing to be justified with, “That is how you get ahead.”
And there is man-splaining (Rebecca Solnit), man-spreading, the hostile work environment – interruptions, dominance and deafness, and something I frequently witness in offices – the small number of women in a team being expected to make the coffee, print out documents and show visitors to meeting rooms.
Before we jump off a collective cliff of hopelessness, let us remember that school leavers, are the future of work and many of them seem to be getting it. No longer is casual sexism or homophobia acceptable or cool. When my son pointed out that some epithets would not longer go unchallenged amongst his peer group, I was mildly surprised as well as being heartened and encouraged.
Our collective parenting has yet to change from bringing up boys to be the little tough guy, overtly manly (& praying that they turn out straight.) And bringing up girls to be pink princesses groomed to lead a fairy tale life of motherhood within wedded bliss with wedding day planning lasting for all of their remembered childhood. And, all this flying in the face of data, our own repeated disappointment, and the cumulative evidence of life experience.
Who benefits from women cleaning and caring? Who benefits from white middle class males dominating the corporate world as well as the higher echelons of education, medicine, all religions and local and national Government?
The bastion of white male privilege is holding fast and shows no signs of being swayed by equality laws, the moral outrage of oppressed group’s or the findings of employment tribunals (recently put out of reach for the majority with the introduction of a £1,200 starter fee in the UK.)
The Current Narrative
Do we know just how 1950’s our current gender story is? When we see Mad Men / Stepford Wives, we laugh at the simpering simplicity of their lot. But have modern TV, film and social media characters really changed that much in the last 65 years? Screenwriter for When Harry Met Sally, Nora Ephron often spoke of the paucity of female character definition in the majority of successful mainstream films with the oft repeated phrases, “What is going on?”, “You don’t understand me” and, “We don’t seem to talk any more.”
Geena Davis is commissioning research and making a documentary to point out the staggering gender imbalance in modern films (Men have twice the airtime and talking time of women in mainstream Hollywood film releases.) And 96% of the biggest films where directed by men.
If you believe TV (please don’t), the life choices women are asked to make are between nurse, beauty queen, tough and sacrificing executive or home maker / baby maker.
And, the gritty reality of suburbia is actually worse! multi-generational nappy changing and taxi driving are moving up the job description.
Males are dominant in the economy and make the majority of the decisions that have the power to either maintain the current set up or exchange it for a more inclusive and profitable gender balanced economic future.
But there seems little or no incentive for them to do so.
It is like the Swiss Canton referendum in Appenzell, where it took until 1971 to enfranchise local women because…ONLY MEN COULD VOTE.
A Future Worth Having
Nothing will change until the narrative moves up. We need to see thousands and thousands and thousands of positive images of women in work, women in politics and women in the community portrayed on TV, in film and over Social Media. And those 3 D and robust characters need to be played by women, drawn by women and directed by women.
And let us have merit and not the casting couch as the door opener to career success.
Importantly, in literature this gender rebalancing is already happening. The majority of hit authors are now female – Think of Margaret Attwood, Zadie Smith, Anne Tyler, Donna Tartt, Suzanne Collins, Stephenie Meyer, Jodi Picoult and JK Rowling.
And more growth is needed. Isolated collections of intelligent women working in smaller communities is not going to be enough. This is a mass project requiring serious mobilisation. And this means and includes YOU. The necessary amplification of a healthy gender narrative needs to be significant.
A final thought.
And whilst we have your attention, can I ask you a challenging question? And, it won’t make you feel great. Sorry.
What subtle choices have you made today that, as you review them now – make you realise that you have helped contribute to the continued suppression of women in the home, the media and in the workplace?
That question is for everybody.
We can take 3 more generations to get the necessary shift to occur or we can start today. It is up to me and it is up to you.
Author Profile – Matthew Hill works with diverse groups of corporate executives in more than 30 countries to raise awareness of positive difference and to support inclusion in the workplace.