The #MeToo movement is basking in its 15 minutes of fame across America and around the world at this moment, and you can be sure that for every 15 minutes of fame, 7½ will be good and 7½ will be bad.
First the good news: Women are feeling more secure about speaking up when they are being harassed or assaulted in the workplace and at schools, colleges, and universities. Whether the incidents involve sleazy compliments, actual physical contact, or actions on the part of male abusers that would constitute a violent sex crime, women are speaking up, no longer afraid that their reports won’t be believed or that more powerful men will retaliate without the nature of the complaint ever seeing the light of day.
Now the bad news: Some of the reports—not so much from universities but from the workplace—involve simple affection that adults normally have for each other: a kiss on the cheek at a party, an appreciation for someone who looks nice, etc.
For example, there’s a tremendous difference between:
- That’s a nice tie.
- That’s a very nice tie.
- You look hot in that tie.
Substitute whatever clothing women might wear, but I have to write from experience, since the first comment above was given to me just two weeks ago where I work. It didn’t make me uncomfortable at all, and it had nowhere near the lasting psychological issues the last one would have caused me. Same with business associates who have hugged me when saying good-bye or hello and, in so doing, kissed me on the cheek.
Unfortunately, the situations involving groping or quid pro quo that we are now hearing from US workplaces are much more serious. For the professors, even the distinguished ones in endowed chairs, who tell 21-year-old female grad students that you control their future and then proceed to rape them, there should be legal punishment. For movie stars who can’t control your urge to jump on every aspiring actress who comes along, there should be shame.
But remember, fantasizing about romantic interludes gets some people, men and women, through the day. None of us are as good as we should be at reading each other’s intentions, and there’s no bucking our biology: we are wired to like each other.
Furthermore, even before Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predation was made public, laws that protect companies’ liability in sexual harassment lawsuits were forcing companies not only to offer mediocre training to employees but to sweep cases under the rug, only leaving them to fester or get worse over time. Instead of slapping the guy right then and there, some women might’ve kept it to themselves and are 10 years later emboldened to sue.
The airing of sexual harassment some 10 or 20 years after the incidents, which is what some of the #MeToo movement is about, will potentially lead to a backlash against the hiring or promotion of women or of professors (and even their universities) refusing to accept women to work in their labs, for fear that something they say as a (bad) joke will come back 20 years down the road or that a book will get the facts wrong.
We are, as we say we want more female engineers and scientists, saying first that we want more female graduate students in our universities, working under mostly male professors at remote research sites, in late-night laboratories, and at parties with large amounts of alcohol. That’s what we’re asking for, and we will surely get it.
Teachers started to get warnings a long time ago about leaving the door open when talking one-on-one with students for some extra help, despite the desire to keep the conversation and the need for help on the part of the student confidential. Although 99.9 percent of the teachers in the US would be fine with closing the door, there’s that small group that ruins the confidentiality for everyone—and the fear of a future lawsuit.
“Some teachers, male and female, use harmless flirting techniques to lighten the atmosphere in a classroom. I’ve complimented a girl on a new haircut, for example; female colleagues aren’t above an eyelid flutter to enlist the help of strong boys to carry heavy books,” wrote Steve McCormack in the Independent, 10 years ago. “This can help win round difficult teenagers. But it is just these situations that can provide ‘cover’ for a teacher in danger of crossing that thin dividing line and becoming too close, or that can lead a confused and immature teenager into thinking the teacher is up for something more intimate.”
And when schoolgirls become working women, companies face a decision point: Hire them, and just when the company is coming into its own 10 years from now, a small percentage of those women, who may no longer be with the company, will have a story in some newspaper to say the new CEO kissed them without their consent.
That’s the decision. The accusation will probably be truthful, but companies will soon ask, Why risk liability in the first place? University professors will ask, Why take a chance when sufficiently qualified male candidates apply?