Since the Humpty Dumpty fall of Harvey Weinstein in October, the gloves are off and the pants – in the workplace anyway – had better be on and fully zipped up.
It’s a topic I’ve been avoiding. I (thankfully) have nothing to add to the #MeToo movement, The Silence Breakers, the brave women who’ve spoken out against sexual harassment and are justly chosen as Time magazine’s 2017 Person of the Year. When I joined the workforce in the 80s – a family construction office with a few women, lots of men and no computers – we were a wacky group of varying ages yakking away about Cheers and Family Ties around the coffee maker/water cooler while tossing sexual innuendo around the way we lobbed crumpled up pieces of 8-1/2 x 11 paper toward waste baskets. Two points!
Consequently, I’m afraid of saying the wrong thing, like Angela Lansbury. “We have to own up to the fact that women, since time immemorial, have gone out of their way to make themselves attractive,” said Lansbury in a recent Radio Times interview. “And unfortunately it has backfired on us – and this is where we are today.”
She’s taken harsh criticism on social media for these comments, but I figure if you’ve had a film career like hers – Murder, She Wrote, Beauty and the Beast, Gaslight – and you’re 92-years-old, you’ve earned the right to speak your mind, huh?
And she does acknowledge the obvious: we’re at a crossroads, a turning point. “Should women be prepared for this? No, they shouldn’t have to be,” she said. “There’s no excuse for that. And I think it will stop now – it will have to. I think a lot of men must be very worried at this point.”
Truth. When NBC anchor Matt Lauer landed – SPLAT! – among the eggshells of guys like actor Kevin Spacey, comedian Louis C.K. and CBS anchor Charlie Rose, my husband B and I chatted about it because the story was unavoidable: a CNN news alert on my iPad, the main topic of discussion on The Taz Show (our morning radio channel FM96), the lead-off story on CBC’s The National. B’s facial expression was one of great fear as he reviewed his long and lucrative career. Was there something he did, said, that seemed okay at the time, but viewed through today’s lens would be deemed inappropriate? And now? Can he tell a woman at work that she looks good in that dress without it sounding sexual?
In my struggle to write this blog, I brought up the topic at my weekend Jazzercise class and a woman, who’s also a lawyer, said men should be afraid, for surely they’ve done something wrong. Another suggested this solution for men: “Wear a body cam. All the time.”
So. There’s the “he said, she said” quality of sexual accusations. There’s often great time lapses. Then add to this murky soup the great complexity of human nature, emotion.
Because I jumped right in with two blog installments – Shades Of Ghomeshi and False-Eye Dolls – a couple of years back when Jian Ghomeshi, host of CBC Radio’s Q, had his great fall, B and I have talked at length about that case. I must admit, I felt duped when he was acquitted on all charges due to the credibility of his three accusers. “Each complainant,” Justice William Horkins stated, “demonstrated, to some degree, a willingness to ignore their oath to tell the truth on more than one occasion.”
“Were Ghomeshi’s accusers as smarmy as he sounds?” I asked.
B said, “Ah, but it’s more complicated than that. Say you have this celebrity you admire and he seems to like you, is paying attention to you. That makes you feel really good. But then … out of the blue he does these weird things. Afterward, he’s still attracted to you, you to him, you keep up the communication and your brain rationalizes away the weird things. Time goes by and he ignores you, is attracted to someone else, then you honestly look at what happened.”
Another 80s sitcom that provided fodder for water cooler talk in my early office days was The Cosby Show. Oh man! I held on to Cosby’s innocence until it became impossible. Geez. In July, 2015, a transcript of a civil lawsuit against him from 10 years prior was released. As quoted from Wikipedia he admitted: “to casual sex, involving recreational use of the sedative-hypnotic methaqualone (Quaaludes), with a series of young women, and acknowledged that his dispensing the prescription drug was illegal.” Ew!
Getting back to Lauer, five years ago, former co-anchor Katie Couric talked about his “annoying” habit of pinching her butt, so you’d expect his sexcapades should come as no surprise to those who know him. There’ve been numerous reports of a secret-door locking button in Lauer’s office, something The Atlantic aptly describes as “a particularly vivid metaphor for the amount of power and protection many influential men enjoy”.
Men should be held accountable for their actions and, based on this recent trend, will be. I guess the tricky thing now is this: where do we draw the line? Minnesota Public Radio host Garrison Keillor bit the dust after Lauer. The Washington Post notes, “Keillor’s response stands out as unusual for a person accused of improper conduct. In the 24 hours after his firing, he has spoken again and again about the allegations against him.”
In an email to a reporter, this is how Keillor describes the incident: “I put my hand on a woman’s bare back,” he wrote. “I meant to pat her back after she told me about her unhappiness and her shirt was open and my hand went up it about six inches. She recoiled. I apologized. I sent her an email of apology later and she replied that she had forgiven me and not to think about it. We were friends. We continued to be friendly right up until her lawyer called.”
Weinstein was so big, so powerful, that when he fell it detonated an avalanche, fuelled by social media. The pendulum is swinging the other way. Says Tina Brown, former editor of Vanity Fair, in a recent Time magazine interview, “I guess there’s safety in numbers. And I think women have often felt, ‘Oh, this is what it’s like. I’m just going to take it.’ And I think it’s very, very good right now, even if there’s an overcorrection for a time, for a new culture to be set so that women do not feel that it’s just part of life that they have to put up with the kind of behavior we’re reading about.”
A new culture for men and women in the workplace. One free of sexual harassment and the great power imbalances created by it, as well as the variations in our genders. Let’s be sensible, though, shall we? A recent opinion piece in USA Today suggests a few guidelines to avoid the whole #MeToo movement devolving into “sexual McCarthyism”:
*crime and punishment must match
*allegations must withstand thorough examination and interrogation
*change must trickle down to smaller businesses where allegations aren’t lead news items
*keep in mind sexual abuse is a human rights issue, not a political issue
“Flirting can be fun,” another of my female Jazzercise members pointed out. And harmless. I don’t think women want men to feel so stifled in the workplace that they turn into automatons to maintain job, reputation and family.