The sexual misconduct accusations sweeping the country that have now brought down Kentucky’s own Speaker of the House have one thing in common—they all happened in the workplace.
Solutions often mentioned include better training in recognizing sexual harassment, and men needing to be more sensitive to the actions of their colleagues. The problem is, those solutions won’t work alone because they paper over a much deeper problem: the workplace doesn’t recognize women as equally valid to men.
That cultural norm provides a set of attitudes that branch into a progression of innocent-seeming actions and sprout into scandals and offenses. The resulting revelations seem inexplicable until you look back at the root cause.
The #metoo movement has stunned our consciousness with the number of victims of sexual predators stepping forward. But, those numbers are small compared to the number of women who, every day, endure the subtle slights and outright discrimination in the workplace. The same behavior is judged differently, simply based on gender:
- A male boss is aggressive; a female boss is pushy.
- A male boss is attentive to details; a female boss is picky.
- He knows how to follow through; she doesn’t know when to quit.
- He’s ambitious; she’s driven.
Women are treated differently in the workplace, even to the point of job security. How many of us have seen a man get away with something a woman would be fired for?
Well-known statistics back up those anecdotes. Women earn 80 percent of what men earn. The endless explanations and excuses for that gap only confirm the basic double standard—women work in professions that pay less (a self-indicting observation); they take time out of their careers to raise children (why don’t men take time in equal numbers to raise their children?)
Our democratic political institutions don’t fare well in representing a nation that’s 50.8 percent female: the U.S. House and Senate is 80 percent male; the Kentucky legislature is 87 percent male.
I don’t hear much outrage over those statistics—they’re too normal to be news. But it’s that normalcy that’s produced results like these:
- Entertainment industry giant Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual abuse;
- Donald Trump’s bragging about being a sexual predator then getting elected president;
- Fox News paying $40 million in severance to Bill O’Reilly and the late Roger Ailes to end their contracts after sexual harassment charges;
- And the resignation of National Public Radio’s senior vice president for news, Michael Oreskes, after sexual harassment allegations.
And the list has to include Bill Clinton taking advantage of an intern in the White House in the 1990s, and a 2015 settlement of sexual harassment claims by three employees of the Kentucky Legislative Research Council against two state legislators.
In almost all cases business associates and political partisanship have closed ranks to protect the predators. The monetary or political value of their relationship with the perpetrator was more valuable than the women who were affected.
And if the sexual harassment and actions finally come to light, as they did with Kentucky’s House speaker, the same set of questions usually follow: “Why would someone even start sexual banter in the workplace? Is it about sex, or is it abuse of power? Is it not paying attention to how your words and authority affect others? What were you thinking?”
And, “How can we fix this?”
We can do sexual harassment training. (And we should). Men can have their “consciousness raised” and become more sensitive to the impact of their actions in the workplace. (And they should.)
But, the sad truth is that these patterns of behavior will continue to happen until women in the workplace are viewed and treated first and only as colleagues and co-workers.
Thoughts? Comments? Add yours in the comment section at the bottom of the page!
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