What Some Men Can’t See About Sexual Harassment – post Weinstein

What Some Men Can’t See About Sexual Harassment – post Weinstein

One of the results of the Harvey Weinstein revelations has been some commentary from media observers along the lines of “What’s so wrong about comments about women’s breasts and a little pat on the bum?” Some older men seem honestly not to understand the issue with low-level harassment – the behaviors that can happen out in the open. Mayoral candidate Michel Brûlé found nothing wrong with kissing several employees on the lips while his version of consent was that he “did not have my hands on their throats” as quoted in le Journal de Montréal Oct. 20, 2017. These men, commenting publicly, condemn sexual coercion and assault, but not the comments, sexist jokes, and sexual touching of low-level harassment. So, as an older man myself, I am going to explain to my peers what is wrong, and why. This explanation will go beyond the obvious, but we have to start with that.

Behaviors and comments that are not welcome

A woman does not have to like behaviors that are not part getting work done. To persist in a sexist manner after being told that it was not welcome, or after it can be seen from the negative body language of a woman, is what used to be called boorish. Furthermore, for a man not to be able to figure out what is unwelcome even if a woman does not tell him point blank, is inexcusable. It is inexcusable to imagine that all women enjoy being groped by men at work. It is inexcusable not to see that sexist banter and touching is the top of a slippery slope leading to dangerous situations for women. No man should, even with a smile and a wink, bring sexist banter and sexual touching to work or public life. Of course flirting is fine, but be sure that it is welcome. We men are good at convincing ourselves we have a chance at romance!

The Social Context

So much for the obvious. Now it gets more interesting. There is always much more going on than just one man abusing privilege with one woman. There is the larger context that women today are still a group that is disempowered relative to men. Despite many hard-won gains in recent decades, women are still generally underpaid for the same work as men, still expected to do most of the child rearing and running of households, still held to higher standards of dress and appearance, still being shut out of after-hours activities where businessmen bond and prepare deals, still vulnerable to physical violence from men, and still put on trial when someone abuses them. For this reason, constant reminders that they are not, say, just another engineer or a bus driver, but are also women, are reinforcing the idea that they are members of a disadvantaged group. If a white person working with a black person made ten statements a day such as “What does the black man say? Well, there’s an opinion from one black man. We have no slaves around here.” and so on, it would justly be seen as outrageous. It would also constantly remind that person that they come from a disadvantaged group. Such repeated references to the person’s race would amount to a campaign to assert dominance over that person by undermining their confidence. Sexism at work is the same thing. The Playboy centrefold on the wall of a garage is not just debatable as bad taste or objectification of women, it is also a reminder that men are men and women “should” be stereotypically female (there to please men).


Activating Stereotypes

The negative stereotypes of women, as limited to certain roles, as less smart about science and the world, as submissive, as too emotional, as “there to look pretty” and so forth are well known among both men and women. A man today who would stand up at a workplace and proclaim that women were in fact the way the negative stereotype has them would be quickly proven wrong by a chorus of male and female voices. What cannot be justified by any standard can, however, be asserted by use of humour.

Jokes have the effect of saying that prejudice can be treated in a playful, noncritical manner. Those who laugh along accept making light of discrimination. Some just laugh, but those who are indeed sexist go on to use the prejudiced norm to guide their behavior. Researchers have found that jokes have no impact on attitudes if the group targeted deserves scorn (e.g. terrorists) or are respected (firefighters, nurses), but do effect attitudes about groups such as women and gay men because many people have both positive and negative feelings about them. Jokes work in this ambiguous terrain. Harassing behavior that is “not serious” and jokes that don’t mean to say women are stupid because they are only a joke – these are ways to reinforce those stereotypes without trying to argue for them. After all, anyone who objects is oversensitive and lacking a sense of humour, right?

Because stereotypes are part of our collective baggage, even when we don’t believe them or agree with them, they can be “primed” or brought to mind easily. The sexist jokes or the Playboy centrefold are all that is needed. One experimental study looked a job interviews and priming for gender. The person doing the interview slipped in one of two surprizing questions, either neutral or sexist. The female job applicants who got the sexist question scored less well when the videos were later rated by an expert panel. This was because the “rattled” candidates repeated words more often, had false starts in answering, and were less precise in their choice of words. Instead of just focusing on the job interview, they had to also contend with the stereotype. Part of their thoughts went to realizing that the interviewer was sexist, awareness of the stereotypes, and anxiety about playing into those stereotypes.

As for the comments or even “compliments” on busts and bums, this adds the stress of having to get work done while managing a randy colleague. Play along, and the woman will be accused of encouraging him if he escalates. Say no and the woman risks retaliation and future difficulty in getting the man to cooperate on work tasks. This is stressful as the woman tries to balance what is right against her career needs. Psychologically, it is difficult to admit to ourselves that we are the object of systemic prejudice. To do so is to predict a bleaker future for oneself and one’s daughters, to feel powerless, and possibly to abandon cherished notions that the world is a fair place.

It is not up to women to teach men how to behave, it is up to us men to wake up, smell the coffee and behave respectfully. This respect is due to people of all gender identifications and sexual orientations. Perhaps the conversations prompted by the Weinstein case and subsequent denunciations will bring a new culture of respect in daily life. This could be a redefining moment when change becomes possible for many men.

Ford et al. Not all groups are equal: Differential vulnerability of social groups to the prejudice-releasing effects of disparagement humor. Group Processes Intergroup Relations, XX(X) 1 –22, 2013.

Woodzicka and LaFrance. The Effects of Subtle Sexual Harassment on Women’s Performance in a Job Interview. Sex Roles, Vol. 53, Nos. 1/2, 2005