Dear Male who is frightened by the #MeToo and #TimesUp movement,
So, if you are man who is a little freaked out, worrying that a woman is going to accuse you of treating her badly at work or elsewhere, I’d like to be direct about what is required to increase your own sense of safety. It’s not hard. This isn’t a list of “do’s and don’ts”. I’d like to just name a few things, outright, in black and white–things that, as a therapist, I know increase safety for all in the workplace. If she feels safe, you’ll feel safe. You can use your judgement how to apply them effectively in your context. This isn’t rocket science, and I’m not spouting anything fantastically new.
I am asking you to put a bit of work into your relationships.
If you’re rolling your eyes right about now, I’d invite you to consider that people that put work into relationships live longer and healthier lives.
And, lately, men that don’t put thoughtful work into relationships are forced to resign, get fired, or lose contracts. Frankly, it’s just not good for business or your health to not pay attention.
Call it “Basic Civility and Respect 101”:
1. Recognize the power of privilege.
Here’s the deal: If you are higher up in the hierarchy of the business…the owner, a senior executive, the holder of contracts, a manager: you have power. If you are Caucasian, you have privilege…unearned power. If you are heterosexual, you have privilege. And if you are male, you have unearned benefit that a woman in our same culture doesn’t have.
That’s the deal: Power is real. And it matters.
You can pretend it’s no big deal and don’t need to talk about it. That’s what privilege does–makes talking about it unnecessary–for you. I get that some of you didn’t ask for power or demand it. But you’ve got it.
What the power of privilege does is this: it has people feel pressured to be agreeable, laugh with your jokes, and cooperate.
In the presence of unspoken privilege, People say yes on the outside because of implicit or explicit pressure or coercion even when they are saying no on the inside.
The power of privilege means that people appear cooperative in light of their perceived or actual inability to be candid with an authentic response. If you:
- ask a woman out, it is impossible to know what her “yes” means: does she really want to, or is she trying to make you, as her boss happy?
- make a suggestive comment, or “accidently” brush up against her, and she giggles, she may well just be trying to keep her job.
- tell her how lovely her eyes look because of the colour of her blouse, she may well express appreciation of the compliment, but actually internally want to set you straight about how that didn’t feel comfortable…and never let you know.
- ask her to rub your shoulders because you’ve been hunched over your computer and she obeys, that doesn’t mean she wants to do it.
Let me be clear: when she looks like she’s OK and cooperative or cheerful, it may well be that she is trying to avoid negative consequences. When she looks like she’s fine with it, it’s very possible she’s respecting your power and privilege. She’s complying with personal responses because of your professional power.
When you receive external consent only because of the power differential and cultural expectations and situational pressure it is a actually a no that you can’t see.
All no‘s matter.
As a male/straight/educated/promoted/white person of power, the burden of authentic consent is on you. That burden is challenging.
You need to create safety within your workplace, so that the people in your world can have a yes/no response on the outside that matches the inside.
It’s very do-able. But you need to put effort in:
- Candid conversations that give permission for people to state their own boundaries.
- Experience amongst people around you that they give you answers that aren’t popular with you, but you demonstrate respect for them. For example, she experiences no backlash when she tells you an off-color joke you made was something that was uncomfortable for her.
- You actually are respectful.
2. Observe the “Imagine your momma is watching” policy. At all times.
Men are getting fired, publicly humiliated, contracts cancelled and forced to resign because they are relating to women privately in ways that were never intended to become public.
Men, do the right thing, even when no one is watching. Make your momma proud.
This is a high standard…but doesn’t your mother want you to pursue excellence?
As a side benefit, you will notice that your team works better when you are respectful. The very things that make your momma proud also make you a man that others will invest in and for whom they will work harder. Your staff will be more effective if they don’t experience you as slimy, intrusive, disgusting, or someone who commits crimes of assault. Not kidding on this one.
Short and sweet. Live like your momma is watching and you’ll be fine.
3. Embrace a style of interpersonal life long learning and attunement
I am hearing buzz these days that it is difficult to be a man these days in a workplace because what is funny and welcome by one woman is experienced by another woman as off putting and offensive.
The implication is that all women all over should agree on what is inappropriate and write out a very clear list and that any ambiguity or differences between women isn’t fair or reasonable.
It’s like all women should have the exact same standards.
This is not reasonable, or fair, or realistic. Bosses vary in their approach to deadlines, expectations, how they want to be treated. Some bosses ask to be referred as, “Mr. Smith”, others are fine with “Bob”. Some are fine with casual Fridays, others want formal every day. Some CEO’s have an open door policy, others expect their people to pre-book an appointment. Different people: different preferences.
It might sound super obvious to say this, but there are different thresholds of what is uncomfortable for women, because women are different.
That’s not women being moody, or difficult to understand. That’s women being human.
If you are in a position of privilege, it is your task to know your team well enough to know how to relate effectively to different people. We call this attunement:
Attunement describes how reactive a person is to another’s emotional needs and moods. A person who is well attuned will respond with appropriate language and behaviors based on another person’s emotional state. They are good at recognizing moods and emotions in another person and adapting their own response in accordance.
This means getting to know your team’s responses to humor and touch and remembering those responses. Attunement is hearing the candid, unfavorable response to your compliment on her physical appearance, and sticking to business next time; it’s apologizing when you’ve crossed a line for that woman.
Attunement is welcoming feedback from those who work for you and being responsive to it.
Watch, look, listen, ask questions. Be considerate. Be a guy they feel comfortable giving constructive feedback to. If you aren’t good at this, ask for help. Get help.
If you’re not sure how a woman will respond to something, err on the side of caution, respect, and office decorum. Isn’t that what you do with your boss?
To be clear: there are lots of behaviors that are just plain wrong. Always. Pressuring a woman for sexual contact is never OK. Expecting sexual behaviors in exchange for perks or staying employed–criminal. Dehumanizing a women by reducing her to her body parts–Not cool. Ever.
Learning from the people around you about what they are comfortable with? This is about the joking and banter and kidding around…some of it is funny. Some isn’t.
If you’re a guy who likes to push the limits in your conversation, you’re also choosing to be a man who looks to see where the line is with other people, and work to not cross it. And if you do cross it, own it, apologize well and then do better.
4. If you’re a respectful man: Relax
Simply: All women aren’t out to get all men.
The movement created by #MeToo and #TimesUp is about the workplace environment and other spaces being unsafe for women because some men:
- abused their power
- got away with it within a system that looked the other way and minimized the problem and/or blamed the woman for coming forward
This is about making the world safer for your wife, your sister, and your daughter.
Men, please be grateful for systems now developing processes to make the workplace safer for women. We all win when we can all go to work and feel like we have the support around us to be safe. Safe women do better work. Safe women are better equipped to be wives to their partners, mothers to their children, and friends to all.
So many of you are already considerate and respectful. You’ve developed a reputation for being solid. You’ve had opportunities to take advantage of your position and you haven’t. You noticed when someone got suddenly quiet and you asked why–and then apologized when she told you how something was offensive. You have other men straight in the bar after work when they had a few drinks and started speaking disrespectfully.
Be encouraged: When you have a long track record of contributing to a respectful workplace environment, that matters.
Humour does not have to disappear from the workplace. Women enjoy humour…they just don’t enjoy objectifying, degrading humour. We have lots of fun around our office and we are mostly women…we laugh and tease and joke. But we are careful to not enjoy our humour at another person’s expense.
So, respectful men…if you already recognize that part of your responsibility in a great work environment is to make it great for everybody, relax.
PS. In the spirit of conversation and congruency, leave me a note if something about this doesn’t feel right to you. I am open to feedback.
A continuation of our conversation on men fearful of workplace accusations.
The last in the series….what to do with men behaving badly.
And excellent video from a man, to men, on the topic…