Dr. Seuss asked the right question: “Could this go on all day and night? It could you know, and it just might.” Every day, another high-visibility man named as having behaved inappropriately toward women. Every day, another sexual creep forced out of a position of power. Every day, another media revelation pulling back the curtain on how women, especially younger or more vulnerable, have been forced to accept unwanted advances for fear of losing their jobs. Now, except for the man in the White House and, perhaps, the Senate candidate from Alabama, sexual transgressors are paying the price.
When the story originally broke about Al Franken’s loutish behavior, it seemed to be a one-off and at a much different place on the predator spectrum than, say, convincingly alleged pedophile Roy Moore. It seemed reasonable to await the results of an ethics committee investigation and perhaps even to let the voters of Minnesota decide. But it became clear Franken’s was part of a larger pattern, not an isolated incident. Wherever he is on the sexual harassment spectrum, Franken, who had victimized women, has become a political victim of the times, one of three members of Congress to forced to resign this week alone. In this zero tolerance environment, we mustn’t forget that the real victims were those women whom he had harassed and who, until now, feared coming forward. That’s why, this week, Time Magazine named as Person of the Year the silence breakers.
Franken was quite correct to note the irony of his resigning while Donald Trump stays in the White House. That said, his Wednesday speech on the floor of the Senate reflected how, notwithstanding his positive impact on policy matters important to women, he still doesn’t get how his personal behavior deeply injured the women he targeted. His speech was in the tradition of “If I’ve offended anyone, I’m sorry.” If?? If???
The Washington Post invited suggestions from thought leaders in various sectors, from airlines, to media, politics, Wall Street, domestic workers, religious institutions. Laws need to be changed, facilitating accountability. Many companies, skittish about what they may have overlooked, are trying to figure out what needs to be done. (One suggestion is a corporate reporting responsibility on sexual harassment that would be analogous to the Sarbanes-Oxley bill requiring companies to report to the SEC on procedures to protect investors. I can hear the groans about government regulation from here.)
Every sector needs strategies to minimize abuses of power in the workplace, defining what constitutes sexual harassment, stipulating behavior that falls short of criminal but is clearly unacceptable, providing safe havens for lodging complaints, and imposing scalable penalties for those who step over the line. Admittedly, this will be harder to achieve at the lower rungs of the economic ladder, with hotel and restaurant workers and the least empowered among us. But this deserves no less attention.
There’s a lot to think about. Is there a difference between a co-worker making an unwanted pass and a colleague making a seemingly identical gesture where the recipient welcomes it? In developing new rules, we need greater clarity in defining what is permissible and what is not.
The only long-term solution to abuse of power in the workplace is changing the balance of power, making sure more women make it into the C-suites, the halls of Congress, boards of companies, and other decision-making positions. Progress has been glacial. The Boston Club, this region’s largest organization of senior women executives and professionals (full disclosure: I once sat on its board) has, for 15 years tracked the number of women directors and executive officers at the state’s top 100 companies. While the percentage of women directors has nearly doubled in that time, it is still just 19.5 percent. Forty-seven percent of the top 100 MA public companies have no women executive officers.
Without enough women at the top, women who can help shape the rules, women who can field complaints, some men will continue to see the world as their locker room. The #MeToo movement has given a sense of the magnitude of the problem. But we may not yet be at an inflection point, where offenders can expect swift punishment when they’re outed. Those without a shame gene are still unmoved.
We also would do well to understand that not all offenders have transgressed equally. We must ensure that punishments are nuanced and fit the individual cases. We all have an interest in making clear the rules of the road and what happens when you cross the median strip.
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