The tidal wave of disruption following the Harvey Weinstein headlines may be a game changer. I hope it's a game changer. But not merely in the manner we are seeing now. For the suffering of Weinstein's victims to be properly honored, we need to take a step beyond public wailing and gnashing of teeth. We need to start looking at the many threads that weave a toxic culture. Decades of rape and harassment would not have been possible without the silencing and fear of retaliation that victims describe. Nor would it have been possible without the numbness and compartmentalization victims are conditioned to experience as coping mechanisms.
As I sit in a cafe writing this, I can hear a woman talking to a colleague about selling more Valrhona chocolate. Her conversation opened with telling whomever was on the other end that a male colleague's behavior isn't that bad, and that while he speaks of women he's angry with as "stupid broads" - he's actually very kind. She has arrived at this conclusion because he bought a book for someone once. She continues on to say, "After awhile you just get used to it. There's not much you can do; it's just his personality."
She's not all wrong- but she's not right either.
It's clear that she is doing damage control for a male colleague (she even said the words "toxic masculinity"), and that whomever she's speaking to felt harassed either first hand or as a third party. This is problematic for a multitude of reasons, some legal and some cultural-emotional. Let's tackle those in ascending order of importance:
1) Women seem always to be tasked with explaining and soothing away the toxic behavior of men. This is called "emotional labor" - and it takes valuable time and energy away from the more important tasks of doing business. A meta study published in the Journal of Occupational Health and Psychology (Hülsheger, Schewe AF. J Occup Health Psychol. 2011 Jul 16) confirmed negative effects of emotional labor to health and professional productivity, Further articles in Slate, The Atlantic, and beyond detail the way emotional labor can intrude on personal relationships while derailing women's careers.
2) If A Supervisor Fails To Resolve Harassment, He/She Can Be Held Liable.
Expecting women to defend or minimize the bad behavior of their colleagues places them in the path of potential legal liability. It also endangers the company that allows or encourages this short-sighted damage control. Subtly implying that other female employees should grin and bear it when encountering offensive jokes, discriminatory language, or unwanted advances can be interpreted as requiring an employee to endure harassment as a condition of employment. According to employment lawyers, this is a clear violation of the law. Sadly, this kind of offense is a byproduct of the same unfair cultural conditions that engender harassment in the first place. The cycle relegates women to being both the jailed and the jailers in these predicaments.
3) When We Minimize Someone's Concerns, We Dehumanize Them, And Deepen Their Trauma
When a person experiences a trauma, the event becomes intertwined with many beliefs about identity and safety. Trauma experts usually agree that debriefing with sensitivity post-trauma helps to ameliorate long term effects. That's why, after natural disasters or mass violence, you'll see a legion of counselors deployed as part of crisis response efforts. When our colleagues come to us with tales of personal trauma or intrusion on their basic dignity, we are, in essence, helping them to debrief. It is of utmost importance that we do not minimize their experience. As professionals, it gives us critical insights to our workplaces, and opportunities to problem solve. As human beings, it helps us avoid the dehumanizing element that can amplify a situation into a full-blown, sequence of traumatic events, leaving sufferers feeling they have no safe recourse.
You can be supportive, conducting compassionate debriefing of a concerned colleague, while still allowing space for due process of the accused. In the debrief phase, your only job is to listen to the aggrieved party, and offer your support. You do not need to offer a concrete solution yet, merely careful listening, and careful documentation that conveys that you take them seriously.
In the wake of the Weinstein rape cases, the Kevin Spacey accusations, and the publicized enabling by the entire entertainment industry, we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take a deeply honest look at our culture and amend our ways. It would have been impossible to keep such a thick smokescreen over persistent abuse without a pervasive cultural tendency to minimize and invalidate victims. As we explore the right balance between legality and humanity, a better way forward will emerge. .