Matt Lauer of NBC’s Today show was the latest high profile man to lose his job over credible allegations of sexual misconduct at work. By the time this is published, there likely will be more. Many women have found their voices and Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, and others are unemployed due to their egregious sexual harassment, and in some cases outright sexual assault, of women. The list of those brought down by their libidos is still growing and likely will for some time.
We are in an important moment here—at least it feels like one. Using the Twitter hashtag #MeToo, women across the country have announced their membership in the sisterhood of those who have experienced sexual harassment and assault, both on the job and in their personal lives. Consequently, we have all had to come to grips with the fact that most everyone knows someone with a #MeToo story.
As the allegations continue to pour in, it’s time to turn our attention to the important question of where we go from here. Women make up almost half the work force in the United States. We aren’t going anywhere. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that the vast majority of the men we work with are good men who value the skills and innate characteristics that women in business bring to the table. They are our bosses, our co-workers, and our employees, and they care that we are treated with the respect and dignity we deserve as fellow human beings.
In October, I had the distinct honor of being the first woman invited to address the Wilberforce Fellowship, a yearly leadership conference for young men in their twenties and early thirties. The Harvey Weinstein scandal was still unfolding at the time and with the rise of the #MeToo movement, it was the perfect opportunity to begin a conversation about the role men will play in making the workplace more equitable for women. The conference is the brainchild of Georgia Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols and Federal Judge Tim Batten, and for attendees, it is a weekend of examining what it means to live as a man of integrity in today’s world.
Here is what I told them: The key to reducing sexual harassment in the workplace lies with men setting norms and standards for each other that demand all people, including women, be treated with respect. Shame is a powerful motivator, and fear of social and professional consequences may be enough to keep all but the most obnoxious harassers in check. We need men to call out bad behavior when they see it because their disapproval will be felt more deeply than ours will.
However, my main advice to the young men at the conference was more personal—live your life in a way that women know you are one of the good guys. Be respectful. Be professional. We discussed concrete ideas for ways to be supporters, such as being aware of what is going on around you, especially at events where alcohol is served, and we discussed scenarios they might encounter in a work situation, such as a female co-worker being pestered at a conference. (This particular one happened to me often back in the day.) We talked about ways to intervene without being overbearing—mingle your way into the conversation so she can easily brush the guy off if she wants to—and after reading many of the #MeToo accounts, I would also add—help her watch her drink. We need to have more conversations like these. Men want to help us, and we need to start talking about ways they can do that.
The biggest impact for lasting cultural change must come from men who are established in their careers and communities and who should step up to provide leadership and mentoring to younger men. At the Wilberforce Fellowship, which is named after William Wilberforce, the abolitionist who fought to end the slave trade in England, leaders in business and government share their insights into how to be men of good moral character. Echols and Batten didn’t set out solely to end sexual harassment when they founded their leadership retreat, but because of their commitment to teaching young men to live with integrity and to treat all those within their sphere with dignity and respect, they are creating a more equitable world for women as well.
AEI scholar Christina Hoff Sommers worries that we will squander this #MeToo moment by overreacting and turning innocent remarks or clumsy overtures into harassment accusations where none were intended. This is a concern I share. She is right on the mark, though, when she says, “Women and men of good will have a profound opportunity to speak honestly and work together to begin to write the next chapter in the quest for equality and dignity.”
The time to start these conversations is now. More allegations against high profile men will come as women shed their fear of speaking out, and we will be shocked anew at who else is a creeper. Moving forward, both men and women need to figure out how to navigate the new normal together, and that starts by being allies and speaking honestly with each other. I encourage you to start the conversation.