Now Is The Time. Are We Ready?

“The era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behavior and workplace harassment in our industry is over.” – The Academy Board of Governors, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

So states the Academy. And so states one of the anonymous executives interviewed in the bombshell New Yorker expose by Ronan Farrow that filled in the sordid and disturbing details of Harvey Weinstein’s decades long, systematic harassment and assault of young women. “’I think a lot of us had thought—and hoped—over the years that it would come out sooner,’ the former executive who was aware of the two legal settlements in London told me. ‘But I think now is the right time, in this current climate, for the truth.’”

Now? Actually, the time is long past. Women have endured workplace harassment, and worse, for as long as women have been working. Decades of career growth by women have not erased this ugly reality. Although today’s methods, in general, may seem less boorish and the numbers of outright harassers lower than the “Mad Men” era, we are naïve to think we are in a post-harassment period. It lingers, and in some cases, thrives.

As if to underscore the problem, the past few weeks have seen example after example of questionable figures parade across the news: Bill Cosby’s retrial for drugging and raping scores of women gets its court date, the one year anniversary of Donald Trump’s “Access Hollywood” tape passes, Playboy founder and icon Hugh Hefner dies and Weinstein’s grotesque, serial harassment comes fully into the light. It’s hard to be a creep these days. Along with the still-fresh fall of Fox News chief Roger Ailes and his network star Bill O’Reilly, as well as the Pandora’s Box of tech’s “Bro Culture” harassment, you would think society is finally ready to heave a fatal blow to such ridiculous, arrogant behavior. Some, as noted by the Motion Picture Academy, believe the time is nigh.

Were it that simple. Speaking up about harassment, whether due to being a victim or a human being who understands the damage it unleashes, is still fraught with peril. To complicate matters, there is another insidious consequence of harassment: damage to critical mentor and sponsorship relationships between senior leaders and rising talent. Vice President Mike Pence admitted that he refused for years to dine or take an out of the office meeting with female colleagues for fear of being viewed as cheating on his wife. The fact that he took similar meetings with male colleagues, putting his female colleagues at a clear disadvantage for access and advancement, exacerbates this Victorian view of gender relationships.

That view is virulent. Whenever a Harvey Weinstein sized scandal hits, there are men who feel legitimately spooked. They want to be supportive and collegial with female colleagues, including mentor and sponsorship relationships to help talented women advance. The fear of gossip about sexual impropriety cuts away at the potential for such professional connections, leaving plumb apprentice relationships primarily between those of the same gender. In many ways, our culture remains hyper aware of the newness of women as professional equals, and mildly distrustful that men and women can ever develop close working relationships that are non-sexual in nature. This nuanced discrimination is blight, undercutting women’s professional advancement while preventing real issues of harassment and discrimination from being viewed fairly. It is not only the predatory behavior characterizing harassment that needs to be addressed. It is the subtle discrimination masked as benevolent protectionism that needs examination too.

Men and women should be able to create beneficial work relationships without fear of being targeted as the next department scandal. Does this thinking require a greater level of trust about the motives ascribed to others as well as a willingness to see professionals as professionals and not characters in a soap opera? Yes, it does. It also begs the question of diversity across all ranks in an organization. The stereotypical straight older male-younger woman dyad diminishes when senior sponsors are increasingly female or gay, for example.

The deeper crime of harassment and its multiple consequences is refusing to recognize the individual within the body, be that body female or, in some cases, male. Harassment is objectification for selfish, personal need. Objectification is born of intentionally ignoring the person standing before you. Who that person is remains secondary to the perpetrator’s desire for power, for control, for gratification. Reversing the harasser’s potency must happen voice by voice, model working relationship by model working relationship. It must start with seeing the individual within before seeing which body it inhabits. It must start now.

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