Women have been speaking out over the last few weeks about sexual harassment and assaults – passionately, eloquently and sometimes tearfully – and we men have been (for once!) rather silent.
That’s better than jumping in, drowning out women’s voices, and mansplaining: Actually, I saw a TV show about this once, and the real problem is. … But we men can be more than passive observers, and a start is surely to be better at listening. So I asked some smart, strong women how men can become part of the solution.
I started with Gloria Steinem, who emphasized that men can stand up to make clear that inflicting unwanted sexual attention on another person is just plain wrong.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
“Every time a man interrupts the culture of dominance – and treats both women and men as unique individuals who are valuable for our hearts and minds and actions, not for how we look or where we are in some hierarchy – we are closer to being linked, not ranked,” Steinem told me. “Fathers have a big chance to do this just by listening to their daughters, and showing them that they’re worth listening to. Co-workers can do this by not commenting on a woman’s appearance when they wouldn’t say the same of a man.
“This is not rocket science,” Steinem added. “It’s empathy.”
Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, told me that she flinches a bit at references to male “allies,” because that can sound as if men are wading in as a favor to women. In fact, she noted, it’s in everybody’s interest that we erase harassment and discrimination – and a man’s own team will perform better if he includes women who feel safe and respected.
Sandberg also emphasized something I strongly believe: We need not just sensitivity training, but also accountability. That means firing not only the men who sexually harass but also the men and women who are complicit.
“People need to be afraid not just of doing these things, but also of not doing anything when someone around them does it,” Sandberg said. “If you know something is happening and you fail to take action, whether you are a man or a woman – especially when you are in power – you are responsible, too.”
One dismissal sends a stronger message throughout an organization than 10,000 hours of sensitivity training.
Men have sometimes been prone to disbelieve victims’ stories, and one of the most distasteful aspects of the Harvey Weinstein scandal was a rush to refocus blame by questioning why female victims didn’t speak up earlier or go to police. That tendency to victim-shame is precisely why survivors are reluctant to speak up – and let’s remember that culpability lies with perpetrators, not victims.
One of the bravest voices has been Ashley Judd, who broke the ice by speaking up about Weinstein. So I asked Judd how men can help.
“Men being willing to have dialogue with their families and friends, and to disrupt sexist remarks, jokes and behavior, is integral to change,” she said. “Learning to let women speak up, and being open and teachable, is crucial. Imagine if we could simply say, ‘stop’ and ‘no,’ and men stopped? These micro interpersonal interactions hold transformative power.”
One unfortunate consequence of greater scrutiny of these issues is that male bosses are sometimes reluctant to have dinner or drinks with female employees, making it difficult for women to build social relationships with bosses and be promoted. I asked Rosabeth Moss Kanter, a Harvard Business School professor, about this, and she said that the solution is obvious.
“More women in all positions of power,” she said. “And not as tokens.”
I’m sure that some men reading this are rolling their eyes. On Twitter, one person responded to my denunciation of sexual harassment with a snide, “Do you have a penis at all?” Sigh. We men simply have to understand that there is nothing manly about sexual assault.
Look, human relations are complicated, we are sexual creatures and it’s inevitable that there will be fine lines and misunderstandings. But a new ABC News/Washington Post poll found that 54 percent of American women report having received unwanted and inappropriate sexual advances – meaning that this is a huge national problem, and a challenge for us all. Civil rights weren’t just a “black problem,” the Holocaust wasn’t just a “Jewish problem” and sexual harassment and discrimination are more than just a “women’s problem.”
Men sometimes weigh in: As a father of a young daughter, I deplore. … But that sounds as if one cares about women only if one has made one, or as if one thinks of female colleagues as little girls. So let’s switch to this paradigm: As a human being, I want fellow humans treated fairly and decently, not poked with less respect than we would treat a pound of beef at the supermarket.
I asked my wife, Sheryl WuDunn, what her advice was for men, and she was concise: “Put peer pressure on each other to treat women better.”
Hey, men, let’s heed her advice.
Contact Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.