An “empowerment revolution,” Megyn Kelly? That’s what you think the recent onslaught of sexual harassment allegations indicates?
It’s become conventional wisdom to describe the sexual misconduct developments in similarly grandiose and optimistic ways, like “watershed” or “cultural shift.”
Really? Come on. That’s not what is happening. Those views trivialize the problem and are unfair to women.
Here are five reasons why:
• Culture does not change that easily. It rarely has dramatic shifts because, by its nature, culture involves ingrained, pervasive social patterns, behavior and norms.
So when you start talking about culture, it’s best to focus on how hard it is to change. Let’s do that.
• Sexual harassment is both pervasive and ingrained, which is exactly the sort of behavior that changes slowly if at all.
From the sheer number and range of recent examples, it is clear that male sexual misconduct is not really an anomaly.
That’s not to say that all guys do it, but it does indicate that it is not simply a few pervs who are all that different from the rest of us males. It’s naïve to think that more exposure itself leads to more change because the exposure indicates just how pervasive and deep-seated sexual harassment is.
For most women it is no easier to report sexual harassment than it has been before.
Surveys indicate that at least half the women in the U.S. have been sexually harassed in the workplace. Or, as Sen. Mazie Hirono recently put it, she and every woman she knows has experienced sexual harassment of one sort or another.
But it is not just the number. As the writer Stephen Marche argues, sexual harassment is entrenched and habitual.
The behavior is common because it involves “the masculine libido and accompanying forces and pathologies” that drive so much of our culture and receives so little examination — “the unexamined brutality of the male libido,” Marche writes.
The more men who are outed, the more plausible Marche’s explanation becomes. And the more intransigent the problem.
• For most women it is no easier to report sexual harassment than it has been before.
The kinds of sexual harassment situations we are hearing about typically involve politicians and media folks. These are famous people. We are awed with the fact that bigshot politicians and moguls are going down, but in fact their fame makes them easier targets.
Ripple effect from the media and politician cases? Well, it’s a gigantic ripple from these women to a typical workplace.
And by the way, remember how hard the Washington Post reporters had to work to get the Roy Moore women to come forward?
Consider a more typical workplace like an insurance office or a construction site where a woman’s boss or her fellow workers are sexually harassing her.
Or highly sexualized women’s jobs like waitressing where the tips depend on how good-looking you are, making the economic incentives to tolerate or not report sexual harassment very strong.
Nothing has changed here. The costs of confronting, or asking help from, your bosses are just as high as before, and your weapons are just as weak.
• Attempts to reduce harassment through education have not been successful, and the ways to do this better are very hard.
Some of this involves failures of technique. Many courses are bare bones, pro forma, just enough to keep an organization out of legal trouble. Others use disproven methods that are unpersuasive and create blowback.
But the most significant problem with these courses is much deeper than technique. It is about failure of organizational culture.
Unless an organization, starting with its leaders, clearly shows that it will not tolerate sexual harassment and has committed to a different organizational culture, sexual harassment education does not work.
Changing an organizational culture is a big job that takes lots of commitment and time, far more than the cultural shift describers imply.
• The legal process is not your vindicator.
Ah yes, the legal process: rights, the friend to all women of America. You wish.
A recent comprehensive study with the sad but appropriate title, “Rights on Trial: How Workplace Discrimination Law Perpetuates Inequality,” takes a close look at how the law works in fact. Spoiler alert: Your wishes don’t come true.
The short version of the study’s findings: “Seldom is the outcome of a case implemented that promotes equal opportunity.”
It is not a pretty picture. Most people who have sexual harassment claims never bring them forward because the psychological and economic costs are too high. Those who do seldom win. They are hounded and attacked in court.
If they win, the results are very limited. And the claimants suffer afterwards in all kinds of ways.
But here is what really makes the system hard to change and shows how far we are from a cultural shift: the law reinforces rather than challenges the very hierarchies and stereotypes that reinforce sexual harassment.
There may even be a backlash. A few days ago state legislators in Wisconsin introduced a bill that discourages these lawsuits even more.
Frankly I am tired of hearing media folks and politicians telling us how important this moment is.
They are misreading the lives of people not like themselves and ignoring complicated factors necessary to confront sexual harassment in realistic ways.
In her recent essay about the power of exposure, Carina Chocano said: “the truth got out, and all hell broke loose, leaving behind only hope.”
Yes, hope. But “only hope” is not enough.