[As most of you already know, there is a large and growing movement in the U.S. to fight the mistreatment of women, particularly sexual harassment in the workplace and sexual assault. I am very much in favor of this movement and posted a few personal statements supporting it on Facebook. I'm posting two of them here - the first, a generalized statement about my feelings about gender equality, and the second a perosnal account of what inspired me to write about it in the first place. Please keep in mind that this is written by an American about life in America. Right or wrong, individualism trumps family and religious values here. We often don't have the kind of strong family bonds that are so prevelant in Muslim society, so women must fend for themselves. Awareness of these kinds of problems is critical here. I welcome your feedback.]
A Personal Statement on Gender Equality
I believe in gender equality. I believe that every human being deserves the same rights regardless of gender, race, religion, nationality, or sexual orientation.
I believe that, despite over a century of steady progress, women continue to be marginalized in our culture. I believe that a woman should be paid the same as a man for equal work. I believe that our country desperately needs more women in positions of power, especially as lawyers, judges, and politicians. I believe that far too many women refuse to report sexual harassment or assault for fear of risking their livelihoods and reputations. I believe that most companies in our culture do their best, not to discourage harassment in the workplace, but to discourage reporting it. I believe that women who do report sexual assault are spit upon and victim-blamed if they appear “too attractive.”
I believe that, just as there is a broad spectrum of racial identities, so too is there a broad spectrum between men and women. I believe that every human being - whether they are straight, gay, lesbian, transgender, non-binary, or whatever else - are entitled to equal rights under the law. I believe that every human being ought to have the right to live and love without fear of persecution. I believe that the social norms guiding our perceptions of gender are just that: social constructs that are collectively created within a culture over time. I believe that now is the time to begin changing those perceptions in order to build a brighter future for all of mankind.
I am a straight, white, southern male with a middle-class background. This has afforded me a special status in our culture. I believe that it is people like me who are most reticent to change our perceptions. I believe that it is time for people like me to stand up and say the words I am writing right now. I believe it is time for those of us who have been granted this special status to use our privilege for the common good. I believe that it benefits us most, not to maintain our power and privilege by pushing others down, but to use it to help realize a future in which all human beings are truly treated equal.
As an addendum to my personal statement on gender equality, I'd like to share some personal experiences that led me to write such a statement.
For one, I was raised by very intelligent, competent women. Once I learned to overcome my fear of girls (at about 13), I began to develop deep and lasting friendships with females. I found that I could open up to women more easily than men my age.
After entering the workforce, I began to see how pervasive sexual harassment truly is. I cannot recall working for any company for any considerable length of time where I did not witness numerous examples of sexual harassment against women. As I graduated to more senior management roles, I began to see how companies - especially large corporations - deal with sexual harassment in the workplace.
At the outset of nearly every new job, one must spend at least an hour going through the company’s official sexual harassment training. This training spells out in clear terms what constitutes sexual harassment and what is to be done if one witnesses an incident or if such an incident is reported to you in the capacity of a manager. Generally, follow-up courses are required quarterly. But 25 years in the workforce has shown me that this training is only for show. When it comes down to brass tacks - when instances of sexual harassment actually occur on the job - all of this training is thrown out the window.
In practice, companies strongly discourage any reporting of sexual harassment, whether by the victim or a witness. In my experience, reporting sexual harassment as a victim immediately places one's job in jeopardy. Reporting witnessing an instance of sexual harassment as a manager can be even more hazardous.
In all my years, I have seen dozens of reported cases of sexual harassment which I either witnessed personally or believed the victim based on my knowledge of them or the offender. In every single one of those cases, the offender, usually a manager, was not disciplined in any significant way. In a few cases, the offender was placed on leave without pay while under investigation (for one or two days). But in every case, and I mean every single instance I have ever witnessed, the “investigation” concluded that the claims were unfounded. In most cases, the offender would stay under the radar for a little while before continuing to harass other employees, while the victim was promptly shown the door.
Some of these instances were particularly egregious. For example, in one case a manager was caught red-handed having sexual relations with a direct subordinate in the workplace. There were witnesses and text messages strongly coroborating the complaint. When the romantic partner of this subordinate employee came in to the office with her to report the incident, she claimed that she felt obligated to perform sex acts with this manager in order to keep her job. Despite all this, the official investigation exonerated the manager. Within a month afterwards, the subordinate employee had been terminated due to very specific and intentional documentation to ensure her termination. The manager was promoted twice soon thereafter, and stayed with company until it closed down. Again, I have found that this is not the exception in Corporate America, but the rule.
I have personally reported instances of sexual harassment at least a dozen times in my life. In none of those instances was the offender punished, but as the one who reported the incident, I was often punished. In some cases it cost me my job. In others it cost me the opportunity for advancement despite well-documented superior performance.
So this is a big part of the reason why I say that, despite over a century of steady progress, we still have a long way to go when it comes to gender equality.
Another powerful set of personal experiences that inspired me to write is the staggering number of women I've known who have told me that they have been raped and/or sexually assaulted in their lifetimes. As I said before, I have befriended many women over the years, and the number that have told me that they have been sexually assaulted in some way is around 50%, maybe more. Almost none of these instances were reported, sometimes even to family and friends.
(I acknowledge that this is a small sample set from a scientific perspective, just going off of the women that I have known in my lifetime. Even so, the numbers are truly staggering.)
A woman recently recounted to me one of the times she was sexually assaulted. It wasn't the first time she had told me about it, but for whatever reason something reminded her of it, and she provided more details about the assault. The crazy thing about this was that, in the moment, I felt no sympathy or anger at all. It was only after the conversation was over that it dawned on me how cold my reaction had been.
The thing is, I have been told stories like this so many times that they have become commonplace. Far too often, I do not feel the shock and anger and sadness that these stories should elicit. Subconsciously, I have simply come to expect them.
Another astounding self-discovery that I never even thought about until writing this: Of all the stories of sexual assault I’ve heard in my lifetime - and I’m talking about people I know personally, probably close to 100 women - I cannot recall a single instance in which the assailant was punsihed. Not a single one.
So yeah, we have a ways to go. This stuff is real. And I have to remind myself of this reality for women, because I’ve never had to go through it myself, and it’s extremely unlikely that I ever will. I’ve walked down dark streets at night by myself countless times, and I’ve never had to do so in fear. It’s hard to make that fear feel real to me, to empathize with it, even try to do something about it. I’m not sure I can. But I can sure as [****] try.