Even the Innocent Have a Role to Play

I feel trapped in a time machine that has taken me back three or four decades.

Workplace problems like sexual harassment that should have died off long ago continue to flourish. In fact, the most persistent theme of history – men behaving badly and its persistent corollary, men who can’t keep their pants on – seems to be enjoying a renaissance across the nation, especially among the tech startups of Silicon Valley, the same companies that insist they are building a better world for all of us.

Maybe it’s just that today more people are speaking out about a problem that, like black mold, thrives when it’s out of sight.

The problem is that when victims speak out, it can bring more grief than staying silent, as Noelle Fujii reports in her article on sexual harassment in Hawaii. Speak out and you might be branded a troublemaker and forced to leave the company. Then the coconut wireless takes over and no one else in the Islands will hire you. Meanwhile, the guy who rubbed your ass still draws a paycheck and wonders, “What’s all the fuss?”

I feel unqualified to write on this subject, being a middle-aged male who has never been sexually harassed and has never sexually harassed anyone. Plus my workplace doesn’t tolerate sexual harassment and I have never witnessed it. Innocent as a newborn babe.

Except maybe not so innocent. After all, it was only a few weeks ago that I made a casual comment about a colleague’s slimness – intended as a compliment, except I have no right to comment on someone else’s body. What one person may accept as a compliment, another may see as an unwelcome remark.

At another time, I shared a lewd joke among the boys at work, but inadvertently sent the wrong signal about what’s appropriate. A manager has to set the right tone and I failed.

I asked my female colleagues what else a man can do in addition to simply following the rules that forbid sexual harassment. One suggested, “Be an ally.” That would be an honorable role, so I made a silent pledge that by my words and actions I will send a clear signal to everyone about what is the proper way to act, and a signal that if you are mistreated, you can come to me and be assured I will do the right thing.

Another colleague suggested: If you offer compliments about a woman’s clothing, you should probably find out if those compliments are welcome. If they aren’t, stop and don’t whisper later to a colleague that “she’s too stuck up to take a compliment.”

Nowadays, I hear men moaning that they don’t know what to say or do anymore. Well boys, welcome to how the other half has always lived. Women have always had to apply a complicated calculus in their everyday lives with a thousand ambiguous rules that begin with: “If I smile here, I may get unwelcome attention. But if I don’t smile, they’ll think I’m a cold bitch.”

I had the privilege of being raised by both my parents and two smart older sisters. I saw sexual and other forms of discrimination up close and I despised them. I learned lessons of equality and fairness and passed them onto my children. I try to live them and share them in the workplace, too. We all have roles to play even if we are not guilty of the worst sins.

If I have trouble figuring out the right thing, I always think: “What would my sisters want me to do?”

Categories: Editor’s Note