It never seems to end. Another tsunami of allegations of sexual misconduct is rolling in. No doubt new waves of accusations will follow, as an ocean of misdeeds around the world extends into infinity before us.
Our reaction as men is decidedly mixed. Outrage at the misbehavior of miscreants, shame or regret about misdemeanors we may have committed, weariness of hearing about sexual assault, and frustration that as men we are often all lumped together as demons and assumed to be guilty by association for simply being male. Yet seriously, what should we expect when we know full well that many men view sex as a way to possess and penetrate the object of their desire?
Tired as we are of being tossed around in the pounding surf, you would think that the relentless, breaking news would encourage men to rise up and eradicate assault, harassment and the worst offenders from our midst, but instead we keep our heads down, try to paddle into less hostile seas, and remain silent as “real men” continue to play in the rough water. Those of us who believe that a bold response is in order are daunted by the challenges of reinventing a dominance-based culture of masculinity, even if we are willing to risk the scorn and ridicule of our misbehaving brothers.
Looking to find a way out of the pounding surf and stubborn backwash, I put my ear to the ground, listening closely to what men and women are saying during these turbulent times.
A “woke” twenty-seven-year-old male surfaced the chief complaint that arose over and over again among men. “I never hear anything positive about being a guy. I feel dismissed and disregarded, even guilty for being male. What am I supposed to do?”
My general practitioner, a low-key, even-keeled “guy’s guy” confided during my check-up. “You can’t believe the stuff that I’m hearing from my male patients. This is a national crisis.”
Other comments from men tended to fall into two camps, neither particularly helpful to solving the problem. There were lots of complaints that boiled down to “I’m not one of those guys, so why am I being held accountable for misdeeds I did not commit?” This school of thought ignores the systemic and cultural problem, the attitudes and bias that we share as men, whether or not we have committed any offenses. There is also the “women are guilty, too” argument which is fueled by endless reports about behavior by women that is no less demeaning and exploitative as men. (We’re not just mating animals, are we?)
Given the confusion among men, and aware that women are also navigating their own complex set of responses to the #MeToo Movement, I reached out to several friends to seek their help in understanding the sea change that we are all going through. Two conversations confirmed the complicated set of issues that women are confronting.
I consulted a world-class epidemiologist that commands a ton of respect among mission-driven researchers and policy makers, thinking that she would have something positive to say about how relations between men and women are evolving. Instead, I was surprised to hear, “I’m so tired of being bullied by men in academia. I’m not sure I even want to continue to work in the field anymore. The way to get ahead is to see who is the bigger shit. You know, ‘Let’s put it on the table and see whose is bigger.’ Well, guess what. It’s always mine.” Her further observations drove home the point that women who have been forced to compete in a man’s world often have to demonstrate behaviors that our dominance-based culture demands in order to be successful, behavior that goes toe-to-toe with men (and women behaving like men) that is often damaging to all. The challenge is how to compete without stooping to our level.
A second challenge that women driving change confront is figuring out how to match their responses to the level of offenses committed. My sister is particularly articulate on this point.
A high-ranking executive in oil and gas, an industry populated by men who seem impervious to change, she is a battle-hardened veteran who has been front and center in a war to open up a cutthroat man’s world to women. (At a meeting with a New York based private equity firm, she chopped a guy’s…head off when he tested her mettle, believing that as a woman she would stand down. A male colleague muttered to the wounded Wall Street exec, “I told you not to mess with her.”)
From the very beginning of her career, she was charting new ground. One of three females hired by one of the top companies in her field during her graduating year, she got the job because she “had been a bartender and could deal with guys being jerks.” She was the only woman who made it. “The other women could not take the harassment, or give it back.”
Given her experience of difficult men in her personal life and at work, I had expected her to be more supportive of the women who are working towards change. She very much is, but only up to a point.
“The key issue is that women need to realize that we need to be more precise in our objectives. The #MeToo Movement has made significant advances recently, but in some ways, it has also set us back. Sixty-to-seventy-year-old men who were starting to change, mentor women, are no longer willing to do so.”
She went on, “Those guys let some of us into the club. They know that they are going to say stuff that is going to be offensive, but they don’t mean anything by it. They have wives and daughters. If you tell them when they are out of line, they step back, like most decent men do. They diffuse the situation with humor. I used it, too, my whole career. It works.”
At an Ally Energy panel discussion on International Women’s Day a couple weeks ago, she shared some pointers on how to advance the conversation with men through active listening. Reading her write-up of her talk, I was struck by how much care she takes to engage in a way that men can process. While critics might argue that she is making too many accommodations, I think both men and women can benefit from her approach, and other pointers she shared regarding how we can overcome bias in the workplace.
“I think the problem is that men and women know full well what sexual assault is, but we don’t fully understand what harassment really is. It’s not an isolated incident, or a poorly stated compliment. It’s a repeated behavioral phenomenon. And then there is bias, which is a systemic challenge. Each requires its own set of responses.”
“Harassment is pretty simple. When a man crosses the line with another man, he draws a line and stands his ground. If it’s a one time event, and the guy self-corrects the next time, it’s over. The problem with harassment is that it’s two-sided, and some women don’t draw the line, because we don’t like being direct. But you have to learn. A woman has to say, ‘I don’t like this.’ Unfortunately, it seems to me that sometimes women are out to get guys on stupid stuff. We should not be on the lookout for gotcha moments.”
She went on to say, “Most male senior executives have stopped mentoring women in our business because they are so afraid of being called out for harassment or bias. They are just going back to the old model of shutting women out.”
A third challenge seems to be differentiating the guys who are trying to make a shift from the men who aren’t, and responding to guys accordingly. That’s a tall order, especially given the record against men. Women have good reason to be distrustful, wary, and assume the worst. But as any expert in polarized systems will confirm, there is no peace if the warring parties do not do the hard work of reconciliation, reintegration and reunification.
I am frustrated that some of the men who were eager to embrace change are now sinking into push back on the #MeToo Movement instead of rising to the challenge of responding responsibly to the full range of problems that it has surfaced. Standing safely on the shore out of the cold, roiling waters is not an option. We must wade in, and somehow create a new men’s movement that works with, not against, the women who are pushing us towards change.
This post was previously published on Medium.
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