When I was 15 years old, just a couple of weeks after getting my learner’s permit, I asked my dad if I could pull the family SUV out of the garage before we all left to run errands. He agreed and, without waiting for him to join me, I ran off confidently to get behind the wheel. As I backed up, I turned the steering wheel far too early and caught the front bumper on the garage door rails, ripping it from the front of the car.
My dad was furious, and I was embarrassed and ashamed. I had convinced him that I was ready for this responsibility, and now my mistake would have serious financial consequences for the family. But rather than learn the relatively straightforward driving lesson on offer, I decided I would simply never drive again.
For weeks, I refused my parents’ invitations to get back behind the wheel, to take greater care next time, to learn from my mistake. I had made up my mind: no more driving.
This was the stubborn reaction of a child, and the memory of it came back to me this week when I read in Bloomberg News the latest in what is now a series of articles detailing all of the absurd strategies men are using, ostensibly to protect themselves from accusations of harassment or assault in the #MeToo era.
Some steps seem calculated to protect from false accusations, such as “the man in infrastructure investing [who] said he won’t meet with female employees in rooms without windows anymore.” Other steps, such as “no business dinner with a woman 35 or younger,” seem to reflect men’s distrust of their own ability to do something pretty simple: share a meal with a young woman without harassing her. In all cases, these self-instituted rules are deeply gendered, suggesting that the men suspect women are likely to fabricate harassment or assault allegations, and implying that the men do trust themselves not to sexually harass other men. Neither reflects well on them.
It is maddening to watch adult men respond to revelations of endemic sexual harassment in the workplace by instituting a series of ludicrous personal codes, rather than by learning the relatively straightforward lesson on offer: Don’t sexually assault or harass anyone.
At best, these “rules” are reflective of employers’ woefully incomplete approach to sexual harassment. Employers have long done the absolute minimum to comply with the law, relying on trite videos focused on what you can and cannot say or do in the workplace (“don’t give back rubs” or “don’t offer promotions in exchange for sex”) and sexual harassment policies designed primarily to protect them from lawsuits. The sweeping scale of the Me Too movement makes it clear that no mere set of rules is sufficient to prevent workplace harassment, especially when those rules fail to speak to all of the various power imbalances that make the critical distinctions between genuinely consensual workplace romances and harassment.
The lack of employer investment in these training resources does not, of course, excuse the men who have responded with a temper tantrum to women’s basic plea to treat them like human beings. As a teenager, I knew that my choice never to drive again was both absurd and unsustainable. Mostly, it arose out of a quixotic ― and self-defeating ― attempt to punish others for my mistake. The men who subscribe to these new “strategies” know full well that they are motivated in precisely the same petulant, childish way.
“The men who choose this take-my-ball-and-go-home approach are robbing women of mentorship and professional development opportunities.”
But whereas my refusal to drive had no real victims outside of myself, the men who choose this take-my-ball-and-go-home approach are robbing women of mentorship and professional development opportunities. They are restricting women from the social capital that is so often necessary to succeed and advance in the workplace. And, by adopting strategies based on the assumption that a woman readying a false accusation hides around every corner, these men give safe haven to predatory harassers who know that women who come forward with true allegations are unlikely to be believed. These responses, like sexual harassment itself, are anathema to a healthy workplace.
Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission issued a report identifying the real problem, and it’s not eating dinner with your women colleagues. “Organizational culture is one of the key drivers of harassment,” the report said, because “it basically guides employees … to know what to do when no one is watching.” Organizational culture establishes what kinds of specific behaviors are rewarded or punished, whether formally or informally, in the workplace. A crisis of the magnitude of Me Too requires a cultural shift in response, and it’s employers, not employees, who have to lead it. If they don’t, men will continue to fill the void by isolating women.
To change a workplace culture, employers must invest in trainings that help their employees learn to identify the various power dynamics in the workplace, recognize how they can be used to harm employees, and make clear that these uses of power are unacceptable. It’s not enough to tell employees not to demand sex in exchange for a promotion; they need to understand the power imbalance involved when, say, a man and his woman co-worker go on a business trip. Whether he intends to wield that power or not, because of their respective genders and their isolation from the normal workplace, that disparity is real, and it’s far more complicated than “no back rubs.” Employees, especially male ones, need the time and space to learn and practice taking greater care when these power imbalances show up.
“These men give safe haven to predatory harassers who know that women who come forward with true allegations are unlikely to be believed.”
Sexual harassment and violence aren’t inevitable. And when it comes to sexual harassment prevention, employers should look to resources developed by those with expertise in gender, not merely in human resources or the law.
As for the men who have chosen childish bullheadedness over basic empathy, they will soon realize that there is no turning the clock back on this moment. The days of sexual harassment without consequence are coming to an end, and they can only pout and sulk for so long before they’re forced to grow up and adjust their own behavior in meaningful ways. They’d be wise to learn sooner rather than later.
Tahir Duckett is the founder and executive director of ReThink, an organization working to prevent sexual violence, with a particular focus on adolescent boys.