Creating more gender-equitable workspaces, but are we asking for enough?
“Yes absolutely, sexual abuse perpetrators must experience consequence,” he responded as we talked about the #metoo movement. He then began to tell me a story about a woman at his office who had recently reported a male colleague for sexual harassment. “But I’ve also heard that he’s being wrongly accused. She has something against him, and is using the zeitgeist to her advantage. That is unfair, isn’t it?,” he asked me.
I began to imagine who this woman might be. My reflex imagination created an aggressive, cut-throat ambitious image, the kind of woman who selfishly does what she needs to get ahead. The kind of personality that is often used to portray a female leader in the news and media we consume. As if her personality has only this one dimension to it.
I began to imagine who this man might be — a nice, helpless, hard-working man stuck in the complexity of the #metoo movement — a man struggling to understand how years of accepted male behavior was now suddenly being reprimanded. A man wondering why women had swung from one end of the spectrum to the other, from silence to stories.
In the midst of my empathy for the man, and my one-dimensional image of the woman, I forgot about male privilege. The privilege of higher pay and opportunities this man might have enjoyed for years, without even having the awareness that he indeed is privileged. And in my rabbit hole of thoughts I didn’t realize how deeply problematic my own conditioning is, towards my own gender: I had automatically assumed the worst in this woman.
Unfair then? I went back to the original question. To even question the unfairness for the innocent man felt wrong. Was I advocating for wrongful accusation of men? No, not at all, but I thought of the woman again. Who was she? Maybe she was a single mother, trying to feed her family. Maybe she had been passed up for promotion because she was seen as a mother first and therefore was assumed unreliable at work. Maybe she had come back from maternity leave and had to accept a pay-cut. None of these justify wrongful accusation of the man, but why don’t I question the fairness for the situations she might be in?
For the women who have to accept a world in which decisions about abortion and maternity leave are made by men? For the women who lose their jobs, accept pay-cuts, and work twice as hard after returning from maternity leave? For the women who experience gender pay gap and years of unpaid domestic labor? For the women who are confident, have a brilliant track record, are beyond qualified — and yet, are not in leadership positions they clearly belong in and deserve because of their gender? For the women who either have to choose between a career and a baby or have to be under immense pressure to “do/have it all?”
Unfair, then? I went back to the question again. But I wondered if this is even the right question. I imagined the women swinging across the spectrum on the #metoo movement, from silence to stories. A pendulum swings into the other direction before resuming equilibrium. So maybe the question I really want to ask is this: If we are really striving for “equality”, are we willing to ask for more than what we have been asking for? Are we willing to sacrifice male privilege to get there? Are we willing to ask for more women in executive leadership at the top rather than equal? Are we willing to ask that females be paid more than men? Are we willing to ask for required paternity leave to level the playing field just a little bit?
Are we willing to ask for equity rather than equality, a few years of female privilege, so that pendulum can swing back into equilibrium, even if for a little while? Are we?
I cringed as I wrote down these questions. The patriarchy inside of me yelled uneasily. The imposter syndrome demanded that I shut up. My reflex imagination of the aggressive woman and the helpless, innocent man worked hard to keep my problematic conditioning safe. The privilege inside of me asked to stop the demands and be grateful for having the right to vote, for having the opportunity to be educated, for having the skills to own and fill a bank account, for having access to reproductive rights — for not having to fight those fights, but still reap the benefits.
And I am grateful. I’m grateful for all the women who fought and initiated the swing on the spectrum. But, we need to ask for more, push back to really swing high to the other side, allow for a new kind of extreme to exist — so that when we have had the fortune of experiencing the state of equilibrium, even for a fleeting moment, we know what it takes to come back to it.