The #MeToo movement has seen prominent men in professional spheres ranging from sports and entertainment to politics and business laid low by revelations of past inappropriate behavior. Starting with Harvey Weinstein, who is alleged to have sexually assaulted or harassed dozens of women over the course of his professional career, the movement has prompted the resignation of Minnesota Senator Al Franken and the firing of NBC News star Matt Lauer, among many, many others.
There’s no doubt that for decades women in the workplace have been subjected to inappropriate conduct by their coworkers and superiors ranging from exclusion from certain positions and opportunities to outright sexual assault. The #MeToo movement has capitalized on recent events to prompt significant change, but with swift, significant change, there is always the risk of moving too far in one direction and having broader-than-intended impacts.
“Make no mistake, however. Whatever new norms emerge will also exclude people, and not all of those cast out will be bullies, predators, or, for that matter, men,” writes Virginia Postrel in an article for Bloomberg. “All norms draw lines. Norms that police speech and attitudes, as opposed to physical actions, are particularly likely to snare violators whose deviance is unconscious or benign.”
While it is relatively easy – albeit by no means completely straightforward – to identify workplace incidences of sexual assault, sexual harassment is much more nuanced and difficult to identify and police. There is the risk that reactionary policies to protect the victims of sexual harassment – who are not all women – will go too far and create an unnecessarily unconformable workplace. “One woman’s feminist workplace can be another’s sterile corporate hell,” writes Postrel.
Sexual harassment and assault are uncomfortable but important topics in any workplace. The key to determining what is appropriate and what crosses a line depends to a large extent on the context. While doing so imposes a greater burden than making a single, bright-line rule, it addresses the reality that we work in diverse fields with diverse personalities and diverse values and expectations.
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