I supported Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election, and I stand by that decision, but I was sad and not incredibly surprised to hear the news today about her response to a staff member’s complaint of sexual harassment in 2008. The report is that rather than move or fire the harasser, Clinton intervened with her advisors to allow the harasser to take sexual harassment classes so that he could remain her spiritual advisor. The woman who complained was moved to a different position.
I see these responses to harassment all too commonly, and I understand there is some complexity to them. In my view, you always support a younger woman who is the future of your business (or campaign) over a man who is threatening her physical space. But, many people believe the integrity of women’s physical space is not a crucial issue or put unrealistic expectations on women in disadvantaged power positions to protect their physical space, rather than on men to respect it.
When I started law school, I was very surprised at how little support I got from more experienced women lawyers – often they would be disproportionately hard on me, I felt, or even antagonistic. Later, I realized, I come from a generation of women that has made a deliberate attempt to cultivate and focus on support among women. That was not always the case, and the more experienced women I encountered in law school, like Hillary Clinton, came from a generation of women who had to fight to survive in their chosen profession, no matter what they encountered. I realized that when my professors were being harder on me than men, they might have thought they were doing me a favor and preparing me for what I would face in the legal world. In some ways, that was true.
But, it’s time for things to change and for all of us, women and men, to model what it would be like for women to have equal access to money, work, and family. What would that possibility look like? How would it be different than what we have now? How would it be the same?
Here are 3 ways I see people trip up, like the Clinton campaign may have, on believing these issues are more complex than they really are and tips for how to think of them in a simpler way if someone tells you about sexual harassment:
Complexity 1: His Career is Important.
I often hear from opposing counsel in discrimination cases that the employer is not required to fire an employee. When they say it, a lot of times, there is a tone of outrage, as though women who talk about harassment and ask for respect at work are trying to attack a poor, innocent harassers who are just trying to feed their families (and perpetrate a little harassment on the side).
There was a lot of talk, when allegations against them came out, about how Matt Lauer’s and Al Franken’s careers are so influential and important. I heard people say that it is sad to lose such influential leaders over conduct that is not even a crime. In the example of Hillary Clinton, I imagine it may have seemed like he was crucial to her campaign.
Tip to Simplify: His career is important. That doesn’t mean we hold him to a lower standard; it means we hold him to a higher standard.
Turn Around: How many women were blocked from advancing in their careers because of his harassment? If we care about important careers, we should want to make sure the most qualified people are in them.
Complexity 2: She Could Have Acted Differently.
In every case of sexual harassment I have ever seen, the woman could have acted differently, and defenders of harassment are quick to point that out. This is true and can sometimes seem complex because we all, always, could act differently. There are always different options. Usually, this argument is used to put some blame on the woman for the man’s aggressive behavior. (“She could have said ‘no’” “She could have said ‘no’ with more force,” etc.) Women often look back at their own behavior and can see what they could have done better in hindsight, so they take responsibility for failing to stop the man’s bad behavior.
This seems complex because the woman could have acted differently – that is basically a truism without any real meaning. Especially where there is a power imbalance, as with the Clinton story, women often will not confront their harasser directly or complain with much specificity because they are afraid for their jobs. While we are lying at home thinking about what to do, it seems much more terrifying to report harassment and potentially lose our jobs than to keep hoping the harassment will stop and trying to ignore it.
Tip to Simplify: There was a reason she didn’t act differently. It was because the other option seemed more dangerous. This is important for anyone responding to harassment to remember because it reveals a problem in the work culture that needs to be addressed before this happens again. If one person is more afraid to talk about sexism than to tolerate it, very likely other people are, too.
Turn Around: Harassment is dangerous. Ignoring harassment or avoiding saying “no” is not dangerous. Reconsider who had the obligation to act differently.
Complexity 3: A Restorative Approach Reduces Recidivism.
I wholeheartedly believe that a restorative approach to bad behavior reduces recidivism and is incredibly important to eliminating harassment and abuse. A restorative approach usually means that we give an offender structure, discipline, and help train him to eliminate the bad behavior. The statistics show that court programs that provide structure and accountability to people convicted of crimes are far more successful than just putting people in prison. This is science.
In the case of Clinton’s spiritual advisor, I can understand how there may have been an attempt at this type of restorative approach to his bad behavior. They did not ignore it. They docked his pay and made him take sexual harassment classes.
A lot of employers in these situations say there is nothing more they could do. “Kissing a woman on the forehead doesn’t merit termination,” they say. And, I can see this point (I do believe in restorative justice). This can seem like it creates complexity where the two people were working together. How do we rehabilitate the man with bad behavior and still protect the woman?
Tip to Simplify: You can take a restorative approach and still protect the woman and her career. Because the woman is the one who did not do anything wrong, protecting her career should actually be the priority.
In this case, an important harmful step that the Clinton campaign took was in moving the woman to a different position, which is usually punishing. It is quite possible that they moved the woman to a better position and she was happy with the move. What I see more often, though, is that employers are so uncomfortable that they don’t know what to do, and they think getting the woman out of the way will solve the problem. They punish the woman and rehabilitate the man because they are uncomfortable with what she’s talking about.
Turn Around: The focus should be on rehabilitating and protecting the woman’s career, and after that, consider the appropriate response to the man.
If we can consider (1) the way harassment routinely blocks women from advancement in their careers, (2) the danger of having someone in the workplace who is willing to invade subordinates’ physical space, and (3) encouraging reporting by supporting people who do, we will have safer, more productive workplaces.
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