Episode 116: The Reckoning

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…responses to the outpouring of sexual harassment allegations. Is the focus on this aspect of women’s lives empowering us, or just the opposite?

“We’ve become addicted to being outraged and angry. And there’s some good to that of course but there’s also some damage that’s being done as well.”

But not everyone agrees…

“The notion of a space and a place and a platform for lots of women to speak up about their experience, I think is a game changer.”

Coming up…two views on the reckoning over sexual harassment and assault.

This morning I woke up to news of yet another TV host being suspended from his own show because of allegations of improper sexual conduct. If you live in America you’re getting used to this. Media men, entertainers, restaurateurs, politicians – we’re hearing awful stories of the behavior they’ve subjected female colleagues to over the years.

And the men have got away with it because the women thought, I won’t be taken seriously if I speak up, he’s too powerful, I’ll risk my career. Also, in many cases they doubted themselves, as women so often do. They wondered if it was as big a deal as it felt.

Now, after the Harvey Weinstein allegations, the stories are pouring out. And US media law means it’s easier for an American news organization to publish allegations without fear of being sued. In the UK the laws are different. That may explain why fewer allegations of misconduct are being published there.

Many of the accused men aren’t denying the stories – think Matt Lauer, Louis CK, Mario Battali - they’re apologizing and retiring from the public gaze. At least for now. But others are disputing them – and saying they’re being tried and condemned in the court of public opinion. We’ll talk more about that in a bit.

But first I want to read you this letter a woman wrote to the Chicago Tribune recently.

The media’s portrayal of women as victims does nothing to further their progression in the workplace. It suggests that we cannot advocate or protect ourselves, which lends itself to the fallacy that we are weak and need looking after.

The recent tawdry revelations of past incidents of sexual harassment are not representative of our society’s workplace as a whole and should absolutely have been dealt with, but without creating this “witch hunt” hysteria that the media is so delighted with.

Strong, confident and smart women who know how to handle themselves and make decisions on their own should be the desired perception. The media’s annoying portrayal of women as helpless is incorrect and does nothing to further the cause of equality. If anything, it serves to isolate them in the workplace.

I posted that letter to the show’s Facebook page, asked some of you what you thought. One listener wondered how the writer could possibly know that sexual harassment wasn’t widespread at work, another pointed out being confident and smart had nothing to do with being able to fend off a persistent harasser…others said coming forward was courageous, not weak.

One commenter felt differently though. She said the writer of that letter summed up her feelings quite well. And she said society was coming down too hard on some of the men accused of misconduct. She said, “we seem to be picking up pitchforks and torches before fully understanding the full stories.”

I’d begun to think about that a bit myself. So I asked her if she’d talk to me about this, and she said yes.

“My name is Laura Linnaeus, and by day I serve as a director at a publishing company. And by night I am a fellow podcaster, at the Harvard Digipub podcast where we talk about issues facing the publishing industry…and I should add I have an academic background as well, I taught women’s studies in the past.”

Laura describes herself as a feminist, she’s in her thirties, married, lives in a liberal town.

But she says her reaction to the #MeToo movement on social media – and the torrent of harassment allegations in the press – it’s different than a lot of her friends. And I should add Laura told me she hasn’t experienced serious harassment herself.

“I am not excusing the behavior of perpetrators of sexual violence of any kind, but what alarms me is to see this mob mentality take over the discourse. Because the public outcry isn’t one of careful deliberation, only coming to conclusions after we hear all the facts. It’s an immediate reaction to a movement. And I think we need to be fair equally to both the women who are coming forward with their stories as well as to the men if they are saying, ‘hey, there’s more to this story, I want there to be an investigation,’ then we need to look at it carefully.”

She says she won’t necessarily disagree with the outcomes of those investigations…

“But I do think it needs to be a careful process. We’re talking about ending careers and changing lives and that shouldn’t be done on a whim, as a reaction, it needs to be thought through and logical.”

And it should be. But in that letter to the Chicago Tribune the writer said women were being painted as weak…and Laura had seemed to agree. I wanted to explore that.

AM-T: “Coming forward has been quite a difficult thing to do, and they’ve kept this to themselves for years in some cases. I don’t think of them as weak. What is it exactly that you think makes us look weak, particularly in the workplace?”

“Right. Something I want to clarify, I don’t think it’s necessarily weak to come forward and talk about past assault but the overall language and this overall sweeping generalizations that this is happening to all women in the workplace across all industries, and that all women feel like they are victims in this particular situation. And I do not feel that way, that is not my narrative. So I don’t think you can just generally say that is the case in the workplace universally, I’m not saying it’s not the case in many, many situations, and they should be taken seriously. But I worry about solidarity in the guise of what’s actually creating more polarization between men and women, saying women are the victim, men are the perpetrators, and the damage that overall discourse could have on feminism.”

AM-T: “What do you mean by that?”

 “So for example, there’s a huge gap between assault and harassment and then when we’re talking about harassment there’s a huge range of things that could imply. Groping is groping, that is imposing yourself on another person’s body, absolutely. There is really no grey in terms of groping, so I want to make clear I am not condoning that. But harassment does start to get grey when you start talking about language and the way that we have conversations and what might be considered appropriate versus inappropriate.”

This can be tricky when you throw in generational differences. I know I’ve overlooked comments from older men in the past, the kind of thing no one batted an eyelid at 20 years ago. They would have been considered a compliment. But in a different era, with more equality between the sexes, they sound…and I hate this mealy-mouthed word, but…inappropriate. That said I wouldn’t equate those kinds of comments with sexual comments or someone touching or grabbing me. I see shades of gray here. But not everyone does.

Laura says humor is one area where things can go wrong. Different people find different things funny – or unfunny.

“And what troubles me here is I’d hate to perpetuate the idea that women are delicate figures who universally condemn crude humor. I don’t condemn crude humor myself, it doesn’t bother me. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t bother other women and their preferences should be taken into account. But I do worry about whether this will ultimately further exclude women from the executive suite in the future. And time will tell but I don’t like the idea of women being painted as these delicate creatures…again I’m not talking about groping or anything like that, but in terms of harassment, it could mean a wider variety of things, and we need to do a better job of defining what those are, iterating on the policies and then acting upon those policies in a way that we’re taking all those nuances into account.”

Good luck with that, HR.

Laura says if a man offends with something he says it’s possible he’s just trying to be funny. And failing. She says she’s messed up herself at times.

“I’ve definitely made jokes at work or in my personal life that I’ve regretted. And then just like, oh, you cringe afterwards, like I shouldn’t have said that or I read the situation incorrectly. And I think there needs to be room for error and for people to grow and acknowledge mistakes they’ve made and move forward. And I just don’t want to lose that feeling of compassion that really makes us human.”

But other women aren’t feeling too indulgent right now. Maybe some of you read an opinion piece by the actress Amber Tamblyn. It was in the New York Times. It was called I’m Not Ready for the Redemption of Men – I’ll link you to it under this episode on the website. In it she said it is way too early to talk about the redemption of men when women are only just starting to have their voices heard after centuries of being ignored or disbelieved. She ends the piece by addressing men with the words, ‘Pick a side – choose us.’

And that’s exactly the kind of stance Laura has a problem with. Though a lot of her friends and colleagues don’t.

“Some of the response that I’ve seen among very intelligent women that I’ve always respected is of the ‘men are pigs’ variety, and I think creating this dichotomy and divisiveness is troubling for the feminist cause, because in the end it’s collaboration and thoughtful discourse that will enable social change.”

We’ll talk about this more with my next guest. She isn’t so sure that’s working. But Laura says the ‘taking sides’ attitude – it doesn’t work for her. She hates how divided America has become and how quick people are to jump to conclusions about others. She watched a recent exchange on Comedy Central where a female comedian said, “Men got us into this mess, women will get us out.” And the man replied, “Sounds like you’ve got this, then.” It made her squirm.

“Women have been resisting over-generalization for a century and so why would we want to turn and generalize men in the same way? It seems counter-productive to say the least.”

And yet…

AM-T: “Because we have been the ones for millennia who have just had to put up with stuff, and put up and shut up, I think there’s a feeling of triumph at this time, of yes, we have a voice now we didn’t have before, we can talk about this stuff and people are actually believing us. And I think what you just mentioned, is a natural outgrowth of some of this, I am woman, hear me roar, kind of thing.”

“It’s true, but men are still half of the population. As a woman I am very…I want to be an egalitarian. I want to be on equal footing with men. And I don’t think it helps our cause, we actually alienate quite a few people when we make these sweeping generalizations. I understand the triumph but there needs to be room for men in the conversation.”

AM-T: “No, absolutely. I’ve picked this up from other debates we’ve had around this topic on Facebook. I think there’s this feeling of we’ve been the ones who people haven’t been believed for many years, people are skeptical of what we say. So now if things are a little unbalanced, oh well, so what, kind of thing.”

“Right. I’m gonna echo Betty Friedan for a second. These are problems with our social structure, and both men and women are part of it. And we ultimately do need to work together if we want it to be a scalable and real solution. And if we’re saying, ‘oh well,’ if the balance tips over the other side, I just don’t see that ending well, it just doesn’t seem like a productive movement.”

In a minute…we get a view on all this from Australia – where women at the top know a thing or two about a hostile workplace.

Linda Betts lives in Melbourne, Australia. She’s an organizational consultant and as part of her job she does a lot of work on gender equity and women in leadership. I found out about her through one of my listeners, who pointed me to her podcast about women and work, Are We There Yet?

I started by asking Linda, what’s the landscape like for Australian women in 2017?

“Well I think it is actually rapidly transforming and I'm finally at a stage when I could actually describe myself as hopeful. But I do think that for a long time there has been a very blokey culture, as it's described here, sport, the domination of sort of male sporting heroes in the culture and a very sort of traditional outback male type of image whereas in fact of course most of Australians are very urban creatures these days, and live in large cities. So things are transforming a lot. But of course what's really been challenging is that that hasn't necessarily translated for women in the workplace.”

Including women at the very top.

I’m betting a lot of you remember this, but several years ago, then prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard gave an impassioned speech in parliament. [Fade up Gillard under trax] She said she faced rampant sexism in her daily life as the country’s leader – much of it coming from Tony Abbott, then leader of the opposition party.

“And then of course I was offended too by the sexism, by the misogyny, of the leader of the opposition cat-calling across this table…at me as I sit here as Prime Minister. ‘If the PM wants to, politically speaking, ‘make an honest woman of herself,’ something that would never have been said by any man sitting in this chair. I was offended when the leader of the opposition went out and stood in front of a sign saying ‘ditch the witch’…I was offended when the leader of the opposition stood next to a sign describing me as a man’s bitch…I was offended by those things: misogyny, sexism, every day from this leader of the opposition, every day in every way…”

Linda says Gillard was sounding off about something many female politicians in Australia and elsewhere have faced over the years – a hostile attitude.

“There’d been a number of women who had really, really been targeted both by the opposition politicians, male politicians but also by the media, and a really deliberate strategy about how those women were portrayed as leaders. And really ultimately what led to their political downfall. So I think it was both the media in lots of ways in the past has been very enabling of that and have participated in that. And so this was really a fantastic opportunity within Parliament to speak out.”

Even if Gillard didn’t keep her job for much longer.

Linda says the Australian media has been part of the reason why women in leadership get such a bad rap. So it’s good to see women turning things around and using social media to talk about harassment and assault. 

“I think that is one of the important things that social media has provided is a platform to share it. And it's really the democratization of this information. So previously your options were to go higher up in the organization or to HR to complain. And I think the evidence is that has not led to results. So the ability now for women to take it directly public themselves I think is tremendously powerful actually. And I think it really starts to shift things.

If things are happening to you that are inappropriate, once you had very little options about you know who could you go to, who would believe you. There's the whole sort of legal situation around defamation, it's very strict laws, stricter even than in the UK around defamation, so it was very difficult to sort of make any public statement in the past. But of course the power now is in the numbers. The notion of a space and a place and a platform for lots of women to speak up about their experience, I think is a game changer.”

And it is. It is truly a revolution. But what about Laura’s fear that a torrent of allegations could contain some inaccuracies? And that painting accusers with too broad a brush could backfire?

AM-T: “Is this going to harm workplace relationships between men and women? What do you think?”

“Well I think for a long time, the approach has been to, in terms of getting women to the top, to play by the rules, to work as hard if not harder than men, to be nice, to fit in, to not make a fuss etcetera. And that works for a small cohort of women but actually it took its toll as well because it wasn't necessarily how they wanted to lead or work etc.

I think this is about changing the power dynamics. And I think it's really an opportunity to fundamentally shift the power dynamics. Now that won't necessarily be an easy road, but I think it is opening up a new conversation. So what's really been needed for a long time are different options, a different paradigm about work and what leadership is. And I think hopefully this idea about shaking up the very foundations of male power…I think it potentially will lead to more women being successful at the top, but also in new ways.”

For example, she says, we need more flexibility around who’s in the office when. Not just in certain progressive companies, but everywhere. And another thing…

“I see quite a lot of women who prefer to work collaboratively. They don't necessarily like a highly competitive environment.”

She says that doesn’t mean they don’t want to do great things. They just want to do them in a different way.

But switching from the future to the present…

AM-T: “In Australia, so far as you can tell, what is men’s reaction to the Me Too movement, all the allegations of harassment? Is there a reasonable man response and an ‘oh, they’re all a bunch of whiners’ response, or what?”

“I think there's probably only a small cohort where there's a sort of, ‘what are they talking about. They're just trying to get publicity for themselves.’ I think overwhelmingly it's seen as sort of creepy behavior, inappropriate behavior, and there's a dislike for it. I don't think the Me Too thing, I think women are talking about that all the time and sharing experiences etc. You know I haven't heard a lot of discussion about it by men and I don't think men quite get that experience about what might have happened to you 10 years ago or 20 years ago, that it still sits with you, is a form of trauma, affects how you see yourself in the world, what power you might have.

There's a brilliant comedian here in Australia, Hannah Gadsby, who's just done a show that's won all these awards around the world that really goes to that sort of core issue of the damage that those sort of experiences as a young woman can have, you know, 20, 30 years later it's still absolutely affects your identity. And that's the bit I think men don't get. You know there's often that, well get over it. You know, it happened 20 years ago, move on type general sort of approach. And so I think that's probably the bit that's a bit confusing to them about the Me Too campaign, but I think in terms of the sort of celebrities and the abuse of power, I think one of the good things about Australian culture is that egalitarianism is very important. So the idea that the sort of tall poppy syndrome in Australia, people don't like people with a whole lot of power who are lording it over others. So I think there's a closer affinity with everybody about that. But yeah, a little bit less understanding of the idea of Me Too campaign.”

AM-T: “Yeah, no, I agree. I think that can be hard for them to get because they’re not experiencing the power differential.”


I told Linda, it doesn’t sound like you agree with my last guest that the current focus on men’s misdeeds, and everything women have been putting up with – that it’s pitting men and women against eachother?

“Look I think it's always, I think an element of that is true. In that it shouldn't be about a battle about men and women and this is I think too, where young women and modern women are very alienated by that, they see that as a sort of historical battle of the sexes and they're really not interested in that.”

And she says sure, it isn’t helpful to start blaming all men or identifying all women as victims.
“So I agree with that but I also think not naming it and not naming how ubiquitous the whole everyday sexism is, and the fact that often in terms of sexual harassment overwhelmingly the perpetrators have been men…now not all men obviously, and not most men. A small cohort and it's got to do with power. And I think that's the interesting thing that's coming out with this celebrity thing is that you know there's a lot of people faced with everyday sexism but where it gets really ugly is when it's combined with that power.”

And she says that’s the great thing about all the media attention on this topic, including the social media outcry. It’s bringing a magnifying glass to the power imbalance between the sexes.

“And so what can be done to shift that? And that's ultimately a deeper and harder question rather than a couple of individual men behaving inappropriate. It’s the fact that people knew about it, they got away with it, they got away with it for a long time because they were in positions of power.”

She hopes that power will become more evenly distributed between men and women – not in 50 years, but in five or ten.

But what we still don’t know is whether the current reckoning will have any effect on women in blue collar jobs, who have far more to lose by accusing a harasser. That debate has yet to take place.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. Thanks to Linda Betts and Laura Linnaeus for being my guests on this show.

As usual I would love to hear from you. You can find me on the show’s Facebook page, where we’ve had a lot of good discussions around this topic recently. You can tweet me at @ashleymilnetyte or you can email me via the website.

I will bring you one more show before the end of the year. After that I will pop up again at the end of January.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening. See you next time.