Barbra Streisand was interviewed recently and said that she had never been sexually harassed. Does that seem true?
I was recently at a dinner with women lawyers and one female legal assistant in her 60s, whom I’ll call Joann, who probably would have gone to law school if gender expectations were different at the height of her career. All of the women lawyers were talking about harassment we have experienced and the way sexism has played out in our cases and careers. Joann told us that she had never experienced sexism or harassment. She said she was just lucky, she guessed.
The thing was that I had, myself, seen Joann experience discrimination and even harassment. But, she didn’t register it as that – she registered it as normal behavior.
Barbra Streisand, in a “Women in Film” speech in 1992, said:
We’ve come a long way. Not too long ago we were called dolls, tomatoes, chicks, babes and broads. We’ve graduated to being called tough cookies, foxes, bitches, and witches. I guess that’s progress. Language gives us an insight into the way women are viewed in a male dominated society. Take our business for example. Though I’m sure this would hold true for women in positions of power in any field.
A man is commanding – a woman is demanding.
A man is forceful – a woman is pushy.
A man is uncompromising – a woman is a ballbreaker.
A man is a perfectionist – a woman’s a pain in the ass.
He’s assertive – she’s aggressive.
He strategizes – she manipulates.
He shows leadership – she’s controlling.
He’s committed – she’s obsessed.
He’s persevering – she’s relentless.
He sticks to his guns – she’s stubborn.
If a man wants to get it right, he’s looked up to and respected.
If a woman wants to get it right, she’s difficult and impossible.
If he acts, produces and directs, he’s called multi-talented. If she does the same thing, she’s called vain and egotistical.
It’s been said that a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Why can’t that be true for a woman?
It is clear from that speech that Streisand experienced sexism and harassment. So, why say now that she didn’t? I think there are two reasons.
First, sometimes we only think of sexual harassment as quid pro quo harassment – where a woman is required to perform sexual favors in exchange for getting to keep her job. That is a really important part of sexual harassment, but it is not the only way it happens.
Another important way harassment happens is when women are subjected to offensive comments or behaviors because they are women. When women are insulted, as Streisand describes above, it can be harassment and is a manifestation of discriminatory ideas.
Second, sometimes we believe that if we admit that someone else has harassed us, it will make us victims. We don’t want to identify as a victim, so we think we should be tough and suck it up. Most of the time, that kind of worry keeps us turned against ourselves and silent. It doesn’t do anything to change the harassing behavior, and so the harassing behavior gets more severe.
Someone else’s bad behavior does not turn us into a victim or mean there is something wrong with us. Identifying harassment doesn’t mean anything about the person being harassed until we make it mean something because of what we think about them.
Identifying harassment, talking about it, and reporting it is always safest. Maybe Streisand truly never experienced offensive, sexist comments or behaviors in her life, but her speech seems to say otherwise. The more we talk openly about sexism, the better we are able to create a more fair community.
If you would like a free copy of my book, Career Defense 101: Is Your Career Safe From Sexism?, visit www.CareerDefense101.com.