What we Teach Men.
After a few weeks of pondering this post, and given the sexual harassment scandals that have come to light in the past week, I thought I’d comment a bit on my own experience and process. I had a reflexively defensive reaction to the post at Tenure She Wrote. I think that came from the sense that, even though all those points are essentially good points and would be well heeded, it still came across to me as a lecture. That’s my problem, of course, not the author’s. But I know that it’s not only my problem, based on the comments there. And many, many men have difficulty accepting instructions on how to behave from women. But it is important not to let that small internal reaction prevent us from recognizing and acting on good advice.
But I also believe that we men need to clean our own house. And it starts with what we teach each other. When I was a grad student, I was an assistant in an engineering laboratory. The professor was a famous engineer who’d worked with NASA and other agencies. He was kind and humble and friendly. He always took his students out, as a group, for lunch once per semester.
Once semester there was a woman in the class that I was very attracted to. She was a 3/2 masters student, I was a 2nd or 3rd year grad student. She was actually older than me by a year. We had interacted a lot socially prior to her being in “my” class (I assisted, but didn’t teach or grade.). We flirted a lot. One day in class as she was having trouble with an assignment I rubbed her shoulders.
Now, there’s no question that was out of line. Our prior flirting doesn’t excuse it. We were in a scholastic situation and I had (a tiny bit of) authority. The professor took me aside after class. He was very gentle. He told me: “You can’t rub a woman’s shoulders in the classroom environment.” I told him, “Well, we’re friends outside of class, I wasn’t just hitting on a random student.” He said: “That doesn’t matter. You don’t know what she might say about it, or what someone else might think. You could get in trouble.”
I took his words to heart. And to my knowledge, I’ve never behaved inappropriately in a professional setting again. And while it was good that my professor said something, and it was important for me to change my behavior, I’m not sure that he actually said the right thing. Because, the important thing in these situations is not that we men “avoid trouble”. It’s that we do the right thing, and treat women as autonomous people.
My mother taught at the University of Washington for a while in the 70’s. But she never got offered tenure track even though many of her male colleagues were. I asked her about it recently and she said, “I didn’t have the right equipment.” Apparently, to be faculty back then required testes. She’s not bitter about it. An academic career wasn’t really what she wanted, I think. And she did incredibly well for herself as a practicing psychologist.
But whenever she saw me acting badly (which was fairly often), her refrain was always, “You can’t treat people like that.” I think that’s the better way to frame our behavior. The better way for men to teach other men how to behave around women. Yes, the self-interest and the fear of getting in trouble may be effective at putting boundaries on some men’s actions. But far more important is to effect the cultural change of getting men to understand that women are people. And it’s not OK to treat people like that.
We men have a responsibility to each other. But it isn’t the responsibility to close ranks and protect other men who are accused, as is so often the first instinct. The responsibility is for men to use the natural hierarchy that we understand to improve how younger men understand women in the workplace – and women in the world – and mentor them into recognizing women as colleagues and collaborators.
Because I think that one problem many men have is that we don’t see the behavior as harassment. We can convince ourselves it’s chivalry. Telling a woman she’s beautiful or nicely dressed is intended to be elevating. It takes education to see it as degrading. To understand that a compliment in one venue is a slur in another. And when we are corrected in this by women, even women we respect, too often we are simply confused and defensive as a first impulse; too often that first impulse is the last impulse.
We men need to listen to women on these topics. I don’t want anything in this post to be misconstrued that I am saying we don’t. But we also need men in positions of authority to start mentoring younger men in a new way. The goal of understanding male-female relations in the workplace should not be to “stay out of trouble.” It should be to see each other as fully human, fully autonomous, and important collaborators and assets to do the work we’re assembled to do.
It’s not about rules. It’s about empathy. It is, at the end of it, about humanity.