Greater gender equality can erode the power that enables male abuse of women. Push that agenda now, while the public is paying attention.
Windows of opportunity don’t last long, so now may be a good time to push an idea that may seem difficult to grasp: Women are people not that different from men in most ways.
I am aware of some of the very real differences that mark gender, though even those are not always absolutely binary. But those differences don’t define everything else about a person, and they don’t say anything about superiority or inferiority. Yet we are socialized to believe that they do. Fortunately, cultures can change.
This moment for considering gender relationships draws from attention now paid to sexual harassment, abuse and even rape committed by prominent men against women, some of them also famous.
So many women have shared their stories, and so many big names have been accused, that it’s becoming hard to keep track of them individually. Eventually, the public’s interest will fade, but I believe this moment will leave us changes in our culture that will make it hard for any organization to tolerate harassment and abuse.
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I hope it will also make individuals not just wary of being outed, but incapable of harassing or abusing another person.
The change has to be deeper for the latter to happen. We have to snip the link between sex and power. Power is the catalyst that allows and even encourages abusive behavior. And that power grows from a belief in male superiority. How often do people respect those who are less powerful than themselves? Power invites abuse.
The accusations getting public attention are against men who have great and obvious power. Harvey Weinstein could boost careers in Hollywood or destroy them. Roy Moore, who just lost a Senate election in Alabama, is accused of preying on girls when he was in his 30s. A few days ago, radio and TV host Tavis Smiley joined the growing list.
Many of the high-profile men being accused have also been described as tyrannical in their workplaces, generally, but especially toward women.
But it isn’t only the rich and famous who feel entitled to mistreat women. Just being male confers a sense of self-worth relative to women, because our culture paints women as different and, therefore, lesser.
That message isn’t as strong as it was for earlier generations, which is testament to the ability of cultures to change. But some of it persists.
In a new Pew Research Center survey, most Americans say men and women are different in how they parent, how they express emotions and in their physical abilities. But what’s more interesting is what people believe is responsible for those differences. Are the differences a matter of biology (nature) or socialization (nurture)?
People are shaped by the interaction of the two forces, but people don’t always take that into account. Except for agreeing that physical abilities are a result of biology, women and men differed in their responses, with most women saying social expectations were more responsible for differences and men believing biology played the larger role.
The survey also asked about the things people are good at on the job. Most men thought that biology (something inherent in being either male or female) caused differences, where most women gave more weight to social expectations. These beliefs have real-world consequences. They have something to do with the rarity of women in the tech industry, for instance, and the dominance of men in board rooms and corporate offices.
Businesses might be harder on sexual harassment if there were more women in leadership positions. As it stands, the one woman in the room would find it risky to take a stand against her male colleagues.
As long as men retain a power advantage, they will be inclined to see the difference as a matter of ability, not of privilege. And if you’re looking at it from the privileged position, the difference has to mean that you’re just better.
Teaching men and women that just isn’t so is going to be a challenge, but we have an opportunity to make another step toward a culture that sees the value in everyone.