5 lessons the Aziz Ansari story can teach women about power and leadership in their own careers.
Remember that story about Taylor Swift chasing an aspiring musician around her hotel room until he had to hide, afraid, in the bathroom? No? Me neither.
Remember that story about Beyoncé groping people while they posed with her for photographs? No? Me neither.
Remember that time Hillary Clinton confessed to assaulting people, the confession was aired on national television, and she still got elected President? No? Me neither.
But, I do remember Taylor Swift getting sued (SUED!!) for talking about someone assaulting her. I do remember Beyoncé getting pushback for talking about her husband’s infidelity. I do remember decades of Hillary Clinton getting called shrill and criticized for questioning male leadership.
We all know there’s a double standard, and so I was not terribly shocked that some of the first opinion articles I saw about Aziz Ansari this week were not about him and his problematic behavior, but instead about whether “Grace” was ruining the “legitimacy” of the #metoo movement. Really, though, guys? Really? Do I need to explain what’s so lame about that?
I’ll say it a different way. Multiple choice:
Which is a problem that we want to solve in society?
A. Men putting women in fear for their physical safety;
B. Women talking about being in fear for their physical safety;
C. All of the above; or
D. None of the above
To me, it seems like the answer should be obvious, but sometimes I’m not so sure. So, I am partly genuinely asking this question because when I see articles, like the ones questioning whether Grace talking about her experience is ruining other women talking about their harassment experiences, I think maybe some people think B might be the answer.
There is a right answer, and the answer is A. It’s not, like, “Oh, everyone just has different feelings about this.” It is clearly more important for people’s physical safety to be protected than for people to be silenced. People being silenced is a bad thing. People being physically safe is a good thing. Is this confusing?
It is so not the point whether what happened was a crime or not. I have wanted people to be fired from their jobs just for being rude or inattentive before, and I know you have too. If some people want Aziz to be fired, not just for being rude but for acting in a way that could reasonably make someone afraid, I get it.
I want this to actually be useful to you, though, and not just cathartic to me, and so I wanted to pull out what I believe are the lessons about power and leadership for your career from the Aziz and Grace story.
1. Aziz is going to be fine.
That’s right, you can breathe a sigh of relief. Aziz is going to make it. In fact, Aziz has made (I assume) millions of dollars being a weirdly aggressive, presumptuous, though also pretty nice and open dude. Grace’s story is completely consistent with Aziz’s own stories, even his stories about himself, though more explicit than what I have seen from him.
I will be very, very surprised if any real damage is done to his career. If there is harm to his career, it will be really interesting because I feel like Aziz himself often talks about unintentionally being a jerk to women. True, it sometimes sounds boyish rather than gross and scary when he talks about it, but nevertheless this has been part of his public persona.
And here’s the lesson in that: for better or worse when it comes to Aziz, it is powerful to own the things that people might hate about you. I’m not saying intentionally cultivate scary, gross behavior. I am also aware that Aziz has benefitted from the double standard I’m talking about above. But, if we stay stuck in the double standard, it doesn’t help us. It keeps us stuck.
So, when people criticize Grace, Taylor Swift, Beyoncé, Hillary Clinton, or me for talking, we can just own up to it and say, “Yes, I tell my stories. Think what you want about it. That is who I am.”
Aziz can let people be mad about his entitlement and presumptuousness. We can let people be mad about us talking about it. It may be uncomfortable, but we are going to be fine.
2. Talking about your experience helps other people talk about theirs.
I posted about this earlier, but I think it is important that there has been comparative silence about Eliza Dushku’s report that she was molested on set as a child. Actors and directors have come out to support her, but there has not been public outcry and battle about her experience as there has about Aziz.
I think that says a lot about our discomfort around talking about child abuse.
I think that says nothing about whether Grace should have come forward. Grace’s story did not create our discomfort or silence around child abuse. In fact, Grace speaking out paves the way for other women to speak out. Not because it is easy, but because it is hard and worth it. It does not need to be a crime for it to be worth hearing a woman’s story about her experience of life or experience of abuse of power. When the next child comes forward about something that is inappropriate but probably not a crime, Grace will have been there first.
3. How we use power matters.
How we use power is important. This is true on both sides. Aziz has benefitted from the double standard for men and women, and the encounter Grace describes was at least an abuse of that power. He is a TV star, in a position of leadership. I do not care if he is not mature enough to be in a powerful leadership position, he’s still there. As I pointed out above, Taylor Swift has managed to avoid having this kind of story told about her, so I believe it is possible for him to avoid this kind of behavior. He meets a younger professional, who looks up to him, and it does not go well, no matter what his side of the story is.
On the other side, Aziz looks terrible in this story, and Grace knows that. There is power in telling this story and any story of an abuse of power. Grace can think of herself as a victim, and I have no idea if she does, or she can think of herself as standing in integrity and representing the power of speaking out.
4. No one has the right to touch you.
I don’t know if I need to say more about that. But, there is not some kind of thing where if x happens, someone gets to touch you. If they pay for dinner or they’re sad or it’s Tuesday, you still get to decide who can touch you and when. You have a right to your bodily integrity and to fight back if anyone tries to touch you and you don’t want them to. This is especially true with people in power.
This goes back to lesson 1. You can be a person who protects her body no matter what, and if that makes someone angry, let them be angry. You can be a person who talks about her experiences no matter what, even if it makes people angry. You can be a person who takes up space, no matter what, even if it makes people angry.
5. Moment of loud.
You being small does not protect other people or help them. The idea that Grace staying quiet would help Eliza Dushku and draw more attention to child abuse is absurd. We need to be louder about every abuse of power. We need to tell more stories about more experiences that might not be crimes
but are gross and creepy. When we stay quiet, we are the ones who carry the story. And those stories are not ours to carry.
When a great tragedy happens, we traditionally take a moment of silence. But, tradition is not working. I say we need to take a moment of loud.
If you have a story to tell, and you’re not sure if it will help or hurt your career, let’s jump on a strategy session.