For every man or woman who actively participated in Weinstein’s well-orchestrated traps, there were dozens more in his employ who laughed it off, looked away, or saw it as a normal part of doing business in the industry. Twenty years ago, I could have been one of them...
My employer hired a new administrative assistant, another woman. I was working for a large construction firm at the time. All the assistants were women while the project managers, designers and executives were primarily men. We were divided among them, one woman per team. I sat in the center of five offices, each enclosed by clear glass partitions.
My new co-worker walked through the open door of one of these transparent offices to deliver documents. A photo loomed large from the project manager’s computer screen; a scantily clad woman in a provocative pose. The assistant left his office and, ultimately, arrived in Human Resources.
What should have been a private matter between HR and the involved parties was common knowledge. Isn’t it always? The manager made his disgust known. He claimed the assistant walked in unannounced while he was opening emails. For him, that meant the problematic situation was of her own making. Shouldn’t he be able to look at anything he wants in his own office?
I wish I could use the next few paragraphs to tell you exactly how I stood up for her and pushed for a harassment-free workplace.
Unfortunately, I have a different story to tell.
I had a gut reaction. How dare she? Did she think she was better than the rest of us? Every woman in that office was regularly subjected to some type of inappropriate contact, often more personal than a picture on a computer screen. Plus I knew all about that photo.
He had shown it to me the same day.
He called me into his office and asked what I thought.
“I think you’re a dirty old man. Don’t you have work to do?” I smiled as I spoke. I probably had my hand on a hip. That was the playful interaction he wanted. There was no point in taking a job in a construction firm if I wasn’t prepared to deal with guys who had spent half their career in the dirt of worksites.
Women in our office applauded each other’s ability to handle those situations, admired coy deflection and aligned our “sense of humor” with the men in power. There was a skillful balance between accepting flirtatious contact and keeping a sexual line drawn in the sand. Maybe we will, maybe we won’t. As long as you think it’s possible, my job is secure.
These coping mechanisms became our female workplace culture. This concept of filing a complaint, of speaking up, now that was troublesome. Our corporate sisterhood didn’t see her strength; we felt a slap in the face.
How would this sexual harassment claim impact the only power structure I knew how to navigate?
Human Resources decided that the best course of action was to keep her away from the manager in question and someone else would deliver his documents. Me. The rest of the office received a vaguely worded memo about personal emails at work and keeping office décor professional. Basically, no more Snap-On Tools girlie calendars.
After that memo, many of us thought we were funny. We pretended to open racy emails in front of each other, complete with mock outrage. As a woman, I helped destroy whatever salvageable anti-harassment message may have been left and made my co-worker the punchline of the joke. My misogyny was deeply internalized and I felt vindicated by the company’s lack of action.
Step aside, Troublemaker. Let the big girls take it from here.
Misogyny as False Feminism
I had a false sense of power back then. Later, everything would fall apart for me in that office. It’s a story I have yet to figure out how to tell.
I began the difficult work of rebuilding a better version of myself. To do that required dissecting all parts of my truth. Even the ugly bits.
Especially the ugly bits.
It was important to understand how my brand of female misogyny in the workplace was groomed and rewarded. I offer a handful of these thoughts not as excuses, but as tools toward understanding that culture of willful compliance.
My single mother taught me that financial security may not rest on a man in the house, but would always be dictated by one in the office.
Female peers believed in the boys-will-be-boys mantra and our responsibility to work around their behaviors. It was proof of our superior maturity.
Promotions and raises I received were due, in part, to my compliance. I was “easy to work with” and “cooperative.” I was rewarded for participation in a sexually charged environment as well as loyal silence.
I achieved Work-Wife status. The woman who supported her male colleague unconditionally attended to details and picked up the pieces. In sickness and in health. The label implied a familiarity and value that transcended my boring job description. It’s still a commonly used term, problematic in that it often masquerades as respect.
As a young woman, I believed feminism was a term directly related to my ability to succeed in a career. There was no deep introspection on the ethics of how I would get there. It was a badge of honor to go toe to toe with the boys, and I gained a sense of power from thriving in environments where other women did not.
The uncomfortable truth is that supportive roles in workplace predation can benefit female accomplices, financially and emotionally. Addressing that issue is a big piece of disrupting harassment culture.
#MeToo, But Also #MyFault
Like most women, I could post #MeToo in my profile, but my inclusion is complicated. I am both a victim and an accomplice in the victimization of others. Where do I fit into social media’s tidy narrative of right and wrong? Abuser and abused. Feminist and misogynist.
Our 140-character lifestyle demands we define ourselves in the most efficient terms. It denies intricate backstories and erases the paths that led to our current evolution of self. As a result, we solve problems in much the same way, by breaking them down to simple soundbites.
Twitter and Facebook posts share the universally accepted solution to sexual harassment and rape culture: Men need to stop being predators. Other men need to speak up.
I agree with the sentiment, but it reminds me of the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign of the 1980s.
Ineffective due to its disconnect from a complex reality.
It will take generations to curb sexual assault. This is a problem so deeply embedded in all levels of culture and society that there isn’t even a known genesis to its creation. Rape, assault, abuse — when have they NOT existed?
The Weinstein Effect.
The public details of Harvey Weinstein’s crimes will mark a positive cultural shift for victims across industries. The concrete walls around silence are crumbling, and you had better believe a lot of powerful men are working around the clock to cover their tracks.
This, right now, is THE moment and predators know it’s only a matter of time before the truth comes knocking.
But Harvey Weinstein didn’t abuse women for decades in a vacuum. We know he had the help of male and female accomplices at every stage, well before the hotel doors and bathrobes opened.
For every man or woman who actively participated in Weinstein’s well-orchestrated traps, there were dozens more in his employ who laughed it off, looked away, or saw it as a normal part of doing business in the industry. Twenty years ago, I could have been one of them.
As we unmask more perpetrators of harassment and sexual predation in our workplaces, we must also keep a critical eye on the ways these unbalanced power structures are created, nurtured, then left to flourish quietly.🔷