In the wake of the “Time’s Up” movement at the Golden Globes and Time Magazine choosing the Silence Breakers as person of the year, this has become a pivotal moment in our culture. With my experience as a past victim of domestic violence, then working with victims of domestic and sexual assault – both female and male – on a daily basis for 15 years, I understand how much courage it takes for an individual to speak up about their assault. Society tends to blame the victim and defend the accused. This attitude extends to accusations of sexual harassment in the workplace and beyond.
The US Equal Employment Commission states that it is unlawful to harass a person (applicant or employee) because of that person’s sex. Harassment can include “sexual harassment” or unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical harassment of a sexual nature. However, harassment does not have to be of a sexual nature, and can include offensive or demeaning remarks about a person’s gender. For example, it is illegal to harass a woman by making offensive comments about women in general. Whether it’s your boss or a co-worker, sexual harassment can take many forms in the workplace. In the simplest terms, it includes anything from inappropriate comments to unwanted touching.
Historically, men have dominated power positions in the workplace. Although women now make up about half of the workforce in the US, there is still a clear gender gap at the top. According to the Center for American Progress, “women make up less than 15% of chief executives at all companies, and just 4.6% of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies.”
I believe that most people would say they don’t agree with or contribute to attitudes that lead to gender inequity. Let’s take a look at a couple of common ways that people unintentionally contribute. As part of our culture, jokes about women are often made that reference dumb blondes, bad women drivers, and women’s place in the kitchen. Many people see this as harmless, but it perpetuates negative messages about women’s roles and intelligence, while normalizing inequity at work and in the home, and emphasizing male privilege and status. This attitude enhances the power and control dynamic. You may not have thought of rape as something other than sex, but in reality rape is about exerting power and control over another person. Power and control dynamics are an integral part of domestic violence relationships, sexual harassment in the workplace, and sexual assault. This is how really good people can unwittingly contribute to the attitudes that feed the problem. Comments that are entrenched in male bonding culture may be dismissed as locker-room talk, but serve to fuel this dynamic.
Often, women who break their silence are accused of lying. Unwitting enablers of abuse dismiss victim accusations because they didn’t speak up when it happened. We have all seen the backlash victims have experienced in the media, from victim blaming to victim shaming.
The time has come for us to speak out against institutionalized attitudes and systems of inequity. Society is ready for the change that will come from breaking the silence. We, as women, need to come together to support one another. We need to engage our men to speak up when other men put women down or treat them like objects. We need to teach our sons that the genders are equal from the start. And we need to shatter the glass ceiling for our daughters! Please join us in the conversation.