We are at a turning point for women in the workplace: A blooming intolerance for behavior, language, and motives that degrade and exclude women. Finally.
We can lament over why this intolerance and its momentum took so long to gain substantial ground. Many American women have been demanding equality, both in station and treatment, since our Founding Fathers started this great experiment of living freely. We can allow the road hazards and wrong turns to fester, i.e. Anita Hill, the all-too-real casting couches of the entertainment industry, and good-ole-boy mentality that stunk up conference rooms for centuries. Or, we can move forward.
But, how? What should we as a society do to move beyond sharing stories and toward true cultural change? How do we turn momentum into true victory?
This momentum began, in many ways, with the Women’s March last January. When hundreds of thousands of women gathered around the world to say they weren’t going to put up with being second-class citizens any longer, they gave one another courage. They shared the possibility that maybe, if we support one another, we can enact change.
So, start with support. Women supporting other women. Men supporting women. Women supporting men. Because, this is not about hating men. Our path to equal footing will not come by squashing men. Those men who’ve always shown respect, acknowledged women as equals, and stood up to men who wouldn’t, will become the cultural norm for men in our society. Women are key to that evolution.
As women, our role in cultural change is complex. No longer can we demand change of only men. We must change. We must change our expectations, attitudes, and actions.
We must tell our male counterparts that we will not accept threatening and persistently sexual conversation. It’s not enough to walk away and hope they get the hint or to divert the conversation and assume they took the nudge.
We must clearly state that workplace conversations that turn sexual are unacceptable.
We must clearly define sexual harassment as the making of unwanted sexual advances or obscene remarks, share that definition, and explain the spectrum of harassment. Yes, that guy making lewd comments as I walk by him on the street is sexually harassing me. I did not ask for his lame application of “flirting.” The supervisor who attempts sexual advances as a way to impart power or influence over subordinates is committing sexual harassment in the workplace. One is bothersome and perpetuates the idea that uninvited sexual advances are complimentary to women. The latter is unethical and often a litigious offense. Both must stop.
We must, as leaders, lead tirelessly. Every word uttered must be truthful. Every intention must be transparent. Every opportunity we have to lead must be approached as a responsibility of proving that women are capable of a seat at the head of a table, any table. To do that, we must be consistent. If you are not willing to embrace that responsibility, then don’t accept a leadership role. Maybe one day, we won’t have to fight so hard, but that day isn’t today.
We must celebrate women who are assertive, direct, and determined.
This means throwing away words like aggressive, bitchy, emotional, and pushy as descriptors of women in the workplace.
Most importantly, we must seize this moment as a metaphorical reset button. The time for sexual harassment and boys’ club mentality is over. #MeToo propelled us to share our stories, and we gained the important victory of finally being heard and believed. But, the victory is incomplete. Until the phrase “me, too” follows the words “My pay is equal to the industry standard,” “I walked to the store today without being harassed,” and “my boss doesn’t care if I’m a man, woman, or a green, one-eyed alien, just as I long as I do my job well,” we still have work to do.
And, yes, that work starts with us. That work starts now.