Change the Equilibrium: Who’s Afraid?

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Updated with more #RRT ideas on November 7th.

Who is bearing the burden of fear? As I pondered this I returned to a quote attributed to Margaret Atwood: ”

“Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them.”

Whose fear is the greater burden? I’ve recently immersed myself in research regarding the social brain, which outlines how the network in our brain that processes pain, both physical and social pain, is one and the same. When examining this network of pain we see how pain is deepened by perceptions of threat – five domains of threat leave us unable to process information or experiences clearly or rationally. This suggests a man’s fear of rejection and humiliation when laughed at, is experienced the same as if it were physical pain and, maybe more importantly, the fear generated, or perceived social threat, triggers deep and even unconscious reactions. Realizing this may help, in some small way, explain why some men react in anger and even violence, when simply inferring that a woman or women are laughing at him.

My heart aches for a man who feels women are belittling and rejecting him as a human being. The first question this generates for me is: what makes it so easy for us (all of us) to act out on these perceptions – research demonstrates that our social perceptions are much more ambiguous and even more inaccurate than we realize? Misunderstandings are rampant between people, especially those who experience the world differently. Our brains, it turns out, default to the negative and we react first to whatever protects our ‘sense of self’. The second question this situation brings to mind is: are we prepared to see the rejection, humiliation and pain men experience with regard to social threats on the same level as the threat of sexual assault or sexual harassment experienced by women? While a man’s reaction is a response to a deeply ingrained primitive reflex, so is a woman’s. The reaction, and yes I’m generalizing by gender, for women is to make themselves smaller, quieter, less intrusive, almost invisible – women go into hiding and share their stories and secrets with a small few. Men it seems are more likely to go into fight and feed mode while women more often find themselves in freeze or flight mode.

Women learn early not to walk to their car at night alone. Women learn to carry themselves (with a key between their fingers or mace in their pocket) with confidence to discourage any attempts of intimidation or physical harm in underground parking structures. Women learn to be wary of the unknown male voice at the door, day or night. Women are taught directly or from experience not to be alone in an office, or even on a conference call, with THAT guy. Women are warned to be careful about what they wear and how much fun they have at a party – in case it makes them even more vulnerable. What if it’s time that men feel more fear? To feel more afraid of the consequences of taking liberties when they are not explicitly offered. Maybe it’s about time men felt more fear, and responsibility, for what they call “harmless” seduction or flirting.

In the past year a young man after a #RRT told me, in a conversation about rape culture, that women sometimes like rough sex and women like to be seduced and men have learned that they need to “read between the lines” because women are coy. It’s a “dance of seduction” and it would be a shame to lessen the beauty of this timeless dance! Yes – flirting can be fun. BUT, if one in five women (and that’s a conservative reading of the data) have stories of being raped or fighting off an attempted rape and 80% (I think it’s low) have stories of sexual harassment in the workplace, maybe the dance of flirting and seduction is something we can all agree is a reasonable sacrifice. AND let’s not forget both sexual harassment and sexual assault have nothing to do with flirting and sex – it is about POWER – abuse of power, in fact.

On a brief aside, in a recent conversation an “experienced” man suggested that women need to take more responsibility for what they wear, pretty much saying women are complicit in the violent acts and misconduct of men as though we are temptresses! This man suggested we need conversations so men can explain to women how “what women wear” makes the workplace uncomfortable for men. This “blame the victim” mentality remains alive and well,  STILL! This perspective sounds very much in keeping with the recent comments by Bill O’Reilly about how God let him down – no personal responsibility. Women have been carrying the burden of being responsible for men’s reactions. At the very least we need to “flip the script” for a while and invite men to “feel the fear” of reprisal and responsibility for how they choose to behave. Fear of being held responsible for his choices, his behavior.

I’ve written about sexual harassment in the past. I’m not surprised nothing has really changed but I’m determined to look for solutions. As Einstein said, “Our current problems will not be solved at the level of thinking with which they were created”. We have to think about sexual harassment, sexual assault and sexual power differently – at another level. We need to start the conversation – yes I say start because so far it doesn’t seem as though we’ve really had meaningful dialogue on this subject.

Back in February I wrote a third article related to sexual harassment specifically – Who’s the injured party when Sexual Harassment in the Workplace Goes Unchecked? At the close of the article I pose questions for conversation AND I continue to maintain that organizations MUST have these conversations. Shame on us all that we are not willing to struggle for a better equilibrium and to hide behind the cover of legalese and conventions that say a man needs to be protected from his own lack of decency or self-control.  That a man is not responsible for his own judgment and choices. Why would “good” men, men who don’t feel the need, or even the desire, to assert their power by degrading others, want to support this behavior by remaining silent, complicit.

Why are women often party to the practices and policies that allow this hideous behavior to continue?  Whether these women are in HR and protecting the company that pays their salary OR in leadership and protecting their company or their reputation with the boys. Recently when I’ve heard women, with many years experience in business or politics say it has never happened to them but they believe its happening to others, I must admit, I don’t believe them. I don’t know ONE woman who hasn’t directly experienced, observed or helped to silence sexual harassment. AND if you have been in even one of these three positions, you have been directly touched by the insidious tentacles of sexual harassment.

In August 2016 I was prompted by another story from The Hill (Canada’s Federal Parliament) to again write about how we constantly derail conversations to fix the horrific issues of sexual harassment and abuse of power by arguing about the merits of the messenger rather than expressing our deep disgust for the continuing misogyny – Really!? Male Privilege is Rampant in Government. I was recently reviewing research on the importance of inclusion in organizations AND the Canadian PM was named as an example of leadership in filtering policy decisions through a gender and cultural lens to ensure Canada moves beyond diversity to embrace inclusion. At the same conference a researcher spoke about the down side of believing and constantly asserting the moral license you’ve earned. I couldn’t help but think about how recent, and I suspect over blown, praise for the current Canadian Liberal Government, is making them blind to their own short comings. We have a long way to go so best not to become complacent or pat ourselves on the back just yet.

In April 2016 I was inspired by an op-ed written by Michelle Rempel (Conservative MP from Calgary) to write Why Do Some Men Still Think it’s okay for Boys to be Boys.  In this post I share a few stories of sexual harassment and I bemoan the fact that we, humanity, don’t appear motivated to balance the equilibrium or share the burden placed on all of us by perpetrators of violent, intimidating abuses of power.

Listening to Vox’s The Weeds podcast , after the Harvey Weinstein story broke a few weeks ago, shifted my thinking in ways I hadn’t expected. Ezra Klein made an impassioned plea for us to reconsider the equilibrium; to shift who feels the fear. Ezra says at one point, “it became really clear to me that we were living in an equilibrium where the grey area was all against the women….the norms had become such that the mistakes being made or crimes being committed really really favoured, the culture of assault, what people called the culture of rape. Bad things can happen” he says later. It’s time to “change who is afraid”. He then goes on to talk about how we protect possessions – you can’t take people’s shit without consent or it is stealing and he argues that requiring affirmative consent before engaging in sex may cramp your style but THAT’S OKAY if it will reduce the number of women who are sexually assaulted.

Interestingly these laws in California that Ezra writes about in his article, “Yes Means Yes” is a Terrible Law and I completely support it and Amanda Taub (also of Vox) writes in “Yes Means Yes” Is About More Than Rape are really regulations and don’t result in criminal sanctions. The penalties are more about losing student status and possibly financial support. Much like measures suggested by Toronto Defence Attorney David Butt to change how we litigate sexual assault cases in Canada to make them fairer (more just and maybe more supportive of a healthy society!) – see his Globe & Mail article: We are Failing the Community of Sexual Assault Victims  and another article where Butt talks about restorative justice Real Justice would give sexual assault victims real justice and a real choice.

While I’m very concerned about how we as a society respond to sexual violence of all kinds, because they are all related at their roots, I’m focusing my attention on sexual harassment. While the courts struggle with finding equilibrium for the criminal acts of rape, the workplace has proven to be extremely blind to the long term financial impacts of this rampant form of abuse of power. Giving lip service to the importance of values and culture, there is little meaningful work being down to reduce sexual harassment.

I recall back in the 90’s when there was a lot more talk of the teeth available to the Human Rights Commissions (both Federal and Provincial) and I remember being in leadership in an organization who had to respond to a claim for racial discrimination and how THAT shook the entire organization. Maybe women need to bring more of their complaints to the HRC!? Then again that is STILL a career-ender so I prefer to challenge and support organizations to find their own equilibrium. Perhaps we need a list of the Best Workplaces in Canada for Women to work. Let’s give some of these workplaces incentive to weed out the users and power abusers?

What To Do?

We are focusing our #RRTs this fall and winter in conversations to surface ideas to make the workplace more friendly, welcoming and safe for women; more friendly to co-creative relationships for all. I will share more ideas in updates to this post from these conversations in the section below called “Ideas From the #RRTs” as I hear them. Here are a few of mine:

  1. Share stats of sexual harassment claims with everyone (yes the complainant and accused need their privacy protected); AND YET, maybe if we all were made aware of how often it happens more people would come forward and more perpetrators would think twice before behaving badly.
  2. Share stories behind the numbers – stories help both complainants and perpetrators to be clear on what constitutes sexual harassment and how it feels to be on the receiving end. Stories are a powerful tool to shape and shift a culture. On-line forums, unless carefully managed, would not be the preferable place for these personal conversations but image if you could hold a facilitated conversation once a week where men and women came together to share their stories and experiences to help us all see each other more fully and more personally. Men at the #RRTs in early 2017 told me they would love a forum where they could encourage women to come forward. They told me that they never heard the stories and didn’t understand why women wouldn’t scream about these sorts of stories until action was taken. When told that shame and intimidation is a big part of silencing complainants, these men expressed a need to support the women directly or indirectly.
  3. Invite facilitated conversations on values on a vision for the organization – including but not limited to what constitutes breaches to these values.  Maybe by talking about what connects us – the glue that holds our vision together – separate from the personal. Perhaps talking about what we can all do to make the workplace more effective, more efficient and more cohesive will result in greater respect for each other AND build more of an IN-GROUP mindset. These types of conversations could more quickly go to the on-line forum but I would suggest you start with the “eye to eye” approach – something magical happens when we share a laugh or a smile, finish another’s sentence and look each other in the eye. It is REALLY difficult to do that on a forum or even a video call. Maybe in time you will change the nature of every workplace meeting so they become the social gathering where through creative conflict and “meetings-of-the-mind” we solve the big and small problems together and develop a shared vision of what’s possible.

Where to Start?

Just starting is important. Make eliminating sexual harassment an explicit part of your organization’s values – stop hiding it behind declarations of mutual respect and teamwork; that hasn’t worked. For whatever reason, perpetrators don’t see their actions as lacking respect or hurting the team or the culture SO MAKE IT PLAIN AS DAY SO THEY SEE THEMSELVES IN THE DESCRIPTIONS.

Remember: this is not about hurting the organization, it’s about ensuring every one of your employees is free to contribute fully and with all their energy and ability, free from harassment, threat and fear. Make sure the leaders in your HR department create an environment of quick action and even transparency (at an aggregate level).

We all recently heard Bill O’Reilly come out to defend his pay out of $32M to one of his survivors saying he is mad a God that this could happen to him. This is the ranting of a deranged, highly emotional man who is unable to take responsibility for his own choices and actions. Organizations lead by well meaning, highly courageous and ethical leaders can’t afford to be this blind AND I would hope they would never want to.

Ideas from the #RRTs

This section will be updated as more ideas are surfaced and developed in the #RRTs held between now and end of February. If you are in #Toronto and want to join us for an #RRT click HERE for a description and schedule.

  1. Throw out the rules and instead focus on teaching and modeling “good judgment” as a corner-stone to organizational culture. This focuses more on personal responsibility and ownership rather than following a set of rules that often are used as a shield.
  2. Talk about principles of awareness and respect AND intentionally and deliberately conduct conversations about what this means at the team, department and senior levels. How do we co-create and embed our shared standards, making it part of each member of the team. An interesting suggestion at this time in the conversation: engage people who may not otherwise enter into conversation with each other on topics that are far removed from the specifics of sexual harassment, gender or racial inclusion and discover how building bonds of understanding may change the dynamic and increase the mutual respect.
  3. Identify the examples where “it” is working – where men and women are working well together and examine what it is about these situations and learn from them.
  4. Stories – Curate a forum for story telling inviting men and women to share their stories anonymously to increase awareness about the issues and the experiences of both men and women. It was emphasized that a clear set of “Rules of Engagement” must be established and adherence would need to be tightly managed by the curator to ensure open sharing was respected.
  5. Communication Strategy – Men shared how there are posters in some men’s washrooms about “calling-out” your buddy when he makes tasteless jokes at the expense of “others”. This lead to an idea about creating coasters for bars calling out bad behavior and provoking conversations about it at a time when alcohol-induced bad behavior is more likely.
  6. Focus more in the workplace on discussions about values.
  7. Educational Focus – Living values and story-telling, developing common language around bias so teams can call it out when it is impacting.
  8. Develop a Directory of company’s who excel at driving values of respect and inclusion

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