Many years ago I did a sexual harassment seminar for a New York law firm. Afterwards, the partner responsible for handling the firm’s EEOC and workplace matters told me that my ethics-based approach to the topic wasn’t sufficiently rigorous, since he believed that innocent contact between employees in the firm could spawn lawsuits. “I refuse to travel with female associates,” he told me. “I can’t be sure what they will think is harassment.”
“Wait,” I asked. “So because you’re afraid of being accused unjustly of sexual harassment, you engage in sexual discrimination?”
He sputtered something and left to arrange his sock drawer.
I think of this conversation often. I thought of it when Vice-President Mike Pence was reported as saying in 2002 that he never had a meal with a woman who was not his wife, and was promptly savaged for it by feminists and the news media. Because the new rules and practices of the workplace have developed amid contradictions and rigid doctrine rather than with attention to whether they were workable or not, Pence and that hypocritical lawyer years ago are both victims and victimizers. It is often impossible to know what ethical workplace conduct is.
The New York Times was happy to bash Pence for his candor as part of a requirement of membership in “the resistance,” but then, as is often the case for the schizoid paper, later competently and objectively examined the issue away from politics. A Morning Consult poll conducted for the paper found that there is widespread fear of one-on-one situations, male-female interactions in the workplace. About 25% think private work meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex are inappropriate. Almost 2/3 say it is prudent to be especially wary and sensitive around members of the opposite sex at work. A majority of women, and nearly half of men, say it’s unacceptable to have dinner or drinks alone with someone of the opposite sex other than their spouse.
Why do men feel this way? They feel this way because they are, like that lawyer, worried that a stray compliment or a touch will leave them open to a career-marring accusation by either a hypersensitive woman or a nefarious one. They feel this way because the standards of sexual harassment, which do not require mens rea but only that the object of “unwanted advances” is made to feel uncomfortable or that the work environment has become “hostile,” seem arbitrary and unfair to them. Why do women feel that they must be extra-careful among men? They don’t trust men, especially men in power. 40 years of feminist rhetoric and indoctrination has made them distrustful.
A lot of men are also untrustworthy. Or pigs.
Concludes the Times, absolutely correctly,
“The results show the extent to which sex is an implicit part of our interactions. They also explain in part why women still don’t have the same opportunities as men. They are treated differently not just on the golf course or in the boardroom, but in daily episodes large and small, at work and in their social lives….One reason women stall professionally, research shows, is that people have a tendency to hire, promote and mentor people like themselves. When men avoid solo interactions with women — a catch-up lunch or late night finishing a project — it puts women at a disadvantage.”
This mutual wariness and distrust makes equality in the workplace literally impossible.
The problem is even worse than the poll suggests. A majority of couples meet in the workplace, so obviously sexual attraction is a factor in the workplace that many don’t want to ban (though I advise business clients to officially forbid dating vertically in the organization chart, and to discourage horizontal dating at all within staffs and departments.). Some women also have special advantages as women that can help them advance in their careers, unless we want to require a sex-free gender-neutral work environment in which female allure and manipulation is considered unprofessional and taboo. [See the tales of Debrahlee Lorenzana, and the too attractive dental assistant.] Do we want that? Is that even possible? Isn’t sexual attractiveness a legitimate part of the professional tool box? Men can use size, strength, a louder and lower voices and general maleness to project power, intimidation, leadership and persuasiveness. If women can’t use their own special assets, aren’t they at a permanent and unjust disadvantage? If the accepted management model is “act like a smaller, curvier man,” won’t women be permanently handicapped?
Again I find myself recalling (I know I’ve mentioned this here before) the question I got from a stunning female prosecutor after an ethics seminar, who asked me if it was unethical for her to use her appearance and attractiveness to influence an elderly judge well-known for his dirty old man proclivities. I told her that it was not unethical. “Every trial lawyer has special assets and skills, ” told her. I’m certain you are the object of bias and discrimination because of your appearance; you should not be reluctant to benefit from it to help your clients.
But if some women are allowed to make use of their ability to wrap vulnerable, easily-aroused men around their little fingers, how can other women complain when other men misread the signals? It is also undeniable that using sex in a business context, even strategically, is playing with fire. Those after-hours, private working sessions can take unexpected turns, and often do. There is also the appearance of impropriety to worry about. Rumors that a manager is having a sexual affair with a subordinate undermines morale and inter-organizational trust.
I wish I had a magic solution, but there is none. Men and women in the workplace must be open to one-on-one meetings, collaborative travel, and the same kinds of business interactions they have with the same gender. That is the starting point. After that, it is a matter of co-workers being sensitive to basic ethical principles, such as fairness, openness, restraint, integrity, prudence, respect, professionalism and responsibility, and to be aware that the fiction that men and women are exactly the same and must be treated so is not practical or realistic, while accepting the important principle that the office is not a dating bar.