I admit it. As a long-time feminist I have been dealing with accounts of sexual harassment for many years (and my own numerous experiences of gender discrimination). I’ve just written three guest posts on using digital signage for internal communications storytelling to provide clear examples of what is — and is not — sexual harassment. And I’ve read news article after news article describing the sexual harassment charges against men in positions of power. And I still don’t get it.
What’s not to get, you ask? Men in power (and the occasional woman in power I suppose) feel entitled to say or do anything sexual, especially in the workplace. But why?
The clearest explanation of this phenomenon that I have found recently is in the November 20, 2017, New Yorker article “Letter From Silicon Valley: The Disrupters” by New Yorker staff writer Sheelah Kolhatkar.
Reading this long article, I came across Kolhatkar’s explanation of “The Al Capone Theory of Sexual Harassment” by Valerie Aurora, the principal consultant at Frame Shift Consulting, and Leigh Honeywell, a technology fellow at the A.C.L.U. The reference is to Al Capone finally being arrested for tax evasion after years of federal agents trying to get him on “serious charges, including smuggling and murder.”
“People who engage in sexual harassment or assault are also likely to steal, plagiarize, embezzle, engage in overt racism, or otherwise harm their business,” the pair wrote. “All of these behaviors are the actions of someone who feels entitled to other people’s property—regardless of whether it’s someone else’s ideas, work, money, or body. Another common factor was the desire to dominate and control other people.”
Kolhatkar goes on to say:
When I asked Aurora why she thought this connection existed, she said, “There are several reasons, but the most interesting one is entitlement. The same personality flaw says, ‘I am more important than all other people.’ ”
I’ve been pondering this explanation while more and more news stories break about powerful men getting away with sexually harassing women and how nondisclosure agreements and secret settlements have hushed up the victims.
It’s interesting how many sci fi stories deal with controlling sexual reproduction and sexual urges. Even Lois Lowry’s bestselling book THE GIVER, the 1994 Newbery Medal winner and thus considered a book for children, deals with the suppression of sexual drives.
(And this brings me to a sudden realization. In my sci fi story THE MOTHER SIEGE — can be read for free on Wattpad at http://budurl.com/MSintro — I have dealt with total control over pregnancy, yet I did not deal with controlling inappropriate sexual behavior. Obviously I need to consider this question in the planned sequel.)
What is the solution to creating safe workplace environments for women as well as all people including minorities targeted due to various prejudices?
First, language has to change. I saw this myself many years ago as a newspaper reporter who was also teaching news writing courses at Temple University’s Center City campus in Philadelphia. At that time I had a huge collection of news stories that degraded women, including a front-page article from The Wall Street Journal that identified a woman in the article as “the blonde.”
Before I could even teach my students how to accurately portray women in their news stories, I had to work through the prejudices of both the male and female students in the class. At first these students didn’t understand why the language used in news articles could hurt the real-life perception of women.
I would stand in front of the class and explain how “girl” — routinely used then to refer to adult women — was demeaning in the same article where “men” was used to refer to adult men.
Although over the years the depiction of women in news stories has improved (and kudos to The New Yorker for always describing what both men and women are wearing), there is still room for improvement.
And why is this so important? Because public language used to discuss women can lead to inappropriate language and behavior in the workplace.
When it is acceptable to joke at work that you’d like to sleep with such-and-such women, the way is paved to move on to sexual actions. And this is as true for language about minorities as it is for women.
How many times have we all heard someone say something inappropriate about a person and not corrected the speaker? I’m not suggesting we yell at the speaker, only say something such as: “That statement is inappropriate and I would appreciate your not saying it ever again.”
If we don’t speak up, we have tacitly given approval for inappropriate comments — and by extension, approval for inappropriate actions.
Only when we first change language can we begin to change the mindsets of people who, as Aurora and Honeywell wrote, “desire to dominate and control other people.”
As a first step, can we all agree to monitor our own language and the language of our colleagues and friends to help make the workplace and other places a safe environment?
© 2017 Miller Mosaic LLC
Phyllis Zimbler Miller (@ZimblerMiller) has an M.B.A. from The Wharton School and is the author of fiction and nonfiction books/ebooks. Phyllis is available by skype for book group discussions and may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Her Kindle fiction ebooks may be read for free with a Kindle Unlimited monthly subscription — see www.amazon.com/author/phylliszimblermiller — and her Kindle nonfiction ebooks may also be read for free with a Kindle Unlimited monthly subscription — see www.amazon.com/author/phylliszmiller