Friday, 20 October 2017

Hey guys, it's really not complicated

There seems to be a view in some quarters, following the grotesque disclosures about the Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, that men are confused about what is, and is not, acceptable behaviour.

Well, I'm a man, and I'm not confused. (Nor am I a paragon of virtue, but we'll come to that later.) So, in an attempt to be helpful to my fellow males, and to even up the balance a bit after a deluge of articles about 'What women should do about sexual abuse in the workplace', here are my thoughts about what men should do instead.

1. Understand the nature of power relationships. In the words of the US Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast McKayla Maroney, who says she was sexually abused by a team doctor over a period of several years: 'Wherever there is a position of power, there seems to be potential for abuse.'

If you're a boss, or in any kind of a senior position, you do not flirt with, or make advances towards, or suggestive remarks to, younger or more junior colleagues. Nor do you ever suggest, explicitly or otherwise, that you might be prepared to advance their careers in return for sexual favours. (This applies especially, of course, to teachers and lecturers.)

Boss to employee: 'Hey, your tits look great in that top. Fancy a drink later, and then maybe come back to my place to talk about that promotion you're hoping for?' Not acceptable. Never was, never will be.

Colleague to colleague, equal status: 'Fancy a drink after work? I'd love a chance for a proper chat.' Perfectly acceptable. Always was, always will be.

2. Think carefully at office parties, or other social gatherings away from the workplace. (Take special care at 'awaydays' in country hotels.) Boss to employee: 'See you in the bar later? Wear something sexy and who knows what might happen.' Not acceptable.

Colleague to colleague: 'I think I need some fresh air -- fancy a walk outside?' Acceptable -- but be prepared to take No for an answer. 

3. Be aware of the importance of personal space. At the photocopier, or the coffee machine, or squeezing through a doorway, don't 'accidentally' brush against a colleague's body.

4. Be aware of the importance of words. 'New hairstyle? It suits you.' Not a problem. 'Wow, that skirt is a real turn-on.' No. 

5. Take seriously -- and act on -- anything you're told about inappropriate behaviour in the workplace. All men know of other men who are sleazebags -- remember the line often attributed to Edmund Burke: 'The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.'

Harvey Weinstein is not a unique monster. There are probably mini-Weinsteins in just about every single office and workplace -- men who believe that being in a position of power offers them a degree of immunity when they intimidate, humiliate or harass women who need their support to stay in work or make progress in their career.

I am sure I have sometimes made inappropriate remarks or behaved inappropriately to fermale colleagues, and I have squirmed with shame on reading the flood of personal testimonies from friends and colleagues who have joined the #metoo campaign on social media. (If you want an example, read this deeply distressing account by my former BBC colleague Rajini Vaidyanathan.)

There's no point telling us men to imagine what it must feel like to be a woman subject to abuse, harassment and worse -- we are not women and we will never be able to imagine what it is like. (You might just as well tell us to imagine the experience of giving birth.)

But how about we try to imagine what it might be like to be admitted to prison, where we might feel uniquely vulnerable, and then be subjected to a never-ending litany of sexual taunts and threats? 'Hey, lads, look what we've got here. Anyone fancy a go?'

If more women now know that they are not expected to suffer abuse, humiliation and harassment in silence, then some good may come from this after all. And perhaps more men will learn how to behave like decent human beings -- and employers will be obliged to adopt a zero-tolerance policy towards offenders.

Inappropriate behaviour was never acceptable, but too often, it was accepted. No longer.


Guys, it's really not complicated.