PREDATORY HARASSMENT TO GENTEEL PREJUDICE: OUR CONTINUUM

The revelations of sexual harassment of young women in the workplace don’t stop coming, whether it’s women in Hollywood or women scientists in the Antarctic. This type of predatory harassment is well described, easy to understand, and easy to condemn. It is the dynamic of a bully with power forcing his will on those around him who, in their relative powerlessness, must either comply or flee. The pattern is so familiar to all of us—to anyone who has endured an afternoon in a schoolyard, really—that it ultimately goes beyond gender. It is simply “I’m stronger than you, therefore I’ll take the thing I want,” whether that thing is your school lunch, your car, or your body. The newest allegations of sexual harassment are being made by male Hollywood actors and thus support this post-gender nature of predatory harassment. No one is safe when the balance of power is so disturbed. Yet it’s clear that most victims are women: they make up the majority of the powerless in these workplace structures.

This predatory form of harassment hits young women the hardest; peak age in the workplace is 25 – 34 years. If a woman is fortunate enough to get through it and keep her career, she can breathe a sigh of bitter relief: perhaps as her body becomes a less obvious vessel for…robust reproduction, her predators will move to younger and more vulnerable prey. But that sigh is brief. Because after predatory harassment, there is a second phase that I can only call genteel misogyny. Women in their thirties and forties may slowly be liberated from being viewed primarily as sexual objects, but they escape one pigeonhole only to be trapped in another: now they must be the self-sacrificing maternal shaper. Their primary role (or purpose, to some) moves from creating the offspring to nurturing it. There are many powerful people in the workplace who do not believe that women have any business leading laboratories, hospital units, or high-budget film projects when they have, or aspire to have, children at home. “It is as unfair to the children as it is to the sick patients,” I was once told by one older physician. This distaste, wrapped in a cloak of genteel concern for both the next generation and the sick patient, of course, is a major obstacle women face when they are passed up for promotions.

While the predatory harassment we encounter early on may be more about power than gender, this genteel prejudice is entirely about gender. Nurturing the next generation is a privilege and a joy, but how unnecessary that the responsibility for it should fall so heavily, so disproportionately upon one gender, one parent. Recently a journalist interviewed a female politician here in Switzerland. When asked, “How will you juggle your new position with your role as a mother of three children?” she noted calmly that men appointed to important positions are never asked such a question.

And while the predatory phase is perpetrated only by the bully, this genteel misogyny is perpetrated by all of us, men and women alike. The journalist asking that question was a woman. I have heard women as well as men men tut-tut that a colleague is “letting her children be raised by the nanny.” In German-speaking circles, I learned of the term “Rabenmutter” from women, not men. A raven mother pushes her fledglings out of the nest when they are still young, forcing them to fly on their own though still vulnerable and unformed. (And why wouldn’t women be sexist, too? They are born in and shaped by the same society as men, after all.)

Our little arrows of judgment and unkindness hit their mark. We women are our own worst critics. We know that children shouldn’t be raised by nannies or pushed to an independence they can’t yet handle. But we also know that women can no longer be the only ones to sacrifice their years of education and work experience for the well being of society’s next generation. Most young fathers today certainly don’t want it be one-sided, either: in a recent survey, nearly two thirds of fathers reported envy toward stay-at-home dads. Both parents should be allowed more flexibility to be as present as they can manage to be in their children’s lives. It turns out that fathers can be just great at parenting, too.

I would not argue that our genteel misogyny is a more urgent problem than predation, whose physical fear and suffering are not comparable. I worry plenty for my daughters, who will soon face those dangers. But left uncorrected, our genteel and insidious misogyny will perpetuate the imbalance in our workplace that allows predators to thrive and continue disproportionately harming young women and their careers.

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