Sunday, October 22, 2017

Beyond #MeToo

The break rooms of the future
When I was sixteen, I worked in a stationery store as a cashier. My boss, the owner, was intentionally intimidating, and one day, after I came to work from a day at the beach, he stood behind the counter with me. 

"Well," he said, "look at you. I'll bet you think you look like some Swedish movie star with your hair and tan like that."

He wouldn't move to let me pass.

I didn't say, "Get away from me you disgusting, middle-aged creep who married his wife for her money." 

I said, "I don't."  

A customer walked in. I quit two weeks later.

I told my kids this story and others when they were entering the work force for two reasons. First, to let them know about dinosaurs who walked the work planet when I was a young beach-goer. And second, to let them know that smart, self-respecting people can be ensnared in moments of powerlessness that force them to choose between escaping and confronting. 

Recently, after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, Lara Weber of the Chicago Tribune editorial board wrote a piece that I will love forever about the power of millennials to change the culture of sexual harrassment.

They will. We raised them to.

Says Weber: "Women (and men) I know who are in their 20s wince at the stories we tell of the sexual harassment we’ve brushed off over the years. They say they’d never stand for it, and although that’s easier said than done, I believe them. These are the 3-year-olds who were taught to raise hell if anyone touched them, and now they’re filling the workforce." 

In his male-dominated workplace my son has said there is "zero tolerance" for predatory behavior, nor would his female counterparts stand for it. 

On a recent "Closer Look" segment, Seth Meyers made a comment about the #MeToo campaign that went something like this: "Nothing will change until we acknowledge how prevalent the climate of sexual predation is, and until men realize that they are complicit."

The audience went crazy.

I get the applause, I get that Seth would never behave this way, and is sympathetic toward women, and is scornful of complicit men. And sure, I like that he's a contemporary man addressing an age-old problem.

But shouldn't we talk about what already has changed? Shouldn't we talk about what isn't happening to the women Seth is not referring to? And why it isn't?

The number of women who responded to the #MeToo campaign with their stories range wildly in age and the experiences they report. No doubt many of them were cornered in the70's, 80's and 90's and I have no doubt that there are women today who feel dominated and intimidated by men who have not evolved out of that behavior.   

But in talking about "complicit men" is Seth referring to dinosaurs who work for and won't report other dinosaurs who won't change their behavior?  

Because, I know millennials who would go to work in their underwear before they'd sexually harrass anyone they were raised to see as equals.

In high and low places, what went on between men of power and the women who weren't drawn to it for decades, still goes on. But in clear and distinct ways, in far reaching, permanent and progressive ways, the past has changed us all.

It's changed the way we've been raising children for the past twenty years and more. Many of us who have dealt with predators in the workplace, have been even more determined to raise a next generation of neither predators nor prey.

It's changed the way women and men choose friends and partners. It's changed the way they socialize, and it's changed the codes of acceptable social behaviors. Inclusion in those circles is person rather than power-based.  

And, if there are still self-respecting, professional women not calling out predatory behavior on the spot, there are plenty of non-complicit men who will. My son would. His peers would.

With every new #MeToo post that graces my newsfeed, I am sympathetic and sorry to be able to identify with the abrupt feeling of powerlessness that seizes anyone when even for a moment, they know they are not seen as a person, but a personless object to play with.

And yet, for all the stories I've read about powerful men who still exploit the women who work for them, I know there are vast examples of rising stars – men and women – who are taking and will continue to take those executive chairs. They will not be Harvey Weinsteins, and many of them will continue to be women.

We can't kill the dinosaurs through hashtag campaigns and outing alone. But we can look to attrition to assist in the job of eliminating the breed and its behavior. We can have faith in the unwillingness of new players to keep it alive.

Today, I know if my behind-the-register moment happened to one of my daughters, it would not be them leaving; likely the behavior would result in disciplinary action, or even a termination.

There would not be shame and silence, but angry talk about it among a peer group at work, half of which would likely be men willing to co-out such behavior.

As much as women will fuel change over time by coming forward every time a Harvey Weinstein makes the front page, we have already gassed up the "change bus" by putting our experience to use: we've raised good people who will not tolerate the mistreatment of others in the new workplace of the future. 

It's already happening.

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