By Caitlin Panarella
As the nation as a whole has begun to realize what many women have known for decades, many industries are attempting to grapple with solutions for pervasive sexual harassment.
There is a panic within this effort, as men question past interactions with their female colleagues and wonder if they ever crossed a line. Such anxiety has led to solutions like Vice President Mike Pence’s rule to never be alone with a woman other than his wife. If we follow Pence’s reasoning logically, one might conclude that the mere presence of women in the workplace creates a ripe environment for harassment.
It is misogynistic and victim-blaming logic like this that women need to fight against if we are to continue making progress against sexual harassment and in the workplace more generally. The solution is not to bar women access to resources and knowledge of their male peers and superiors, but to create an environment in which harassment is intolerable and eventually disappears.
What might the road to this look like? Women have plenty of ideas. Sheryl Sandberg, author of Lean In, shared her thoughts about the issue in a Facebook post on December 3, 2017:
“We are seeing what happens when power is held nearly exclusively by men,” she wrote. “It gives rise to an environment in which, at its worst, women are treated as bodies to be leered at or grabbed, rather than peers entitled to equal respect.”
In Sandberg’s eyes, the problem is an unequal distribution of power between men and women.
Similar to Sandberg’s reasoning, the women of Hollywood are taking matters into their own hands. According to E! News, Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep, Shonda Rhimes and more than three hundred other women are launching a new movement called Time’s Up, which aims to fight against sexual harassment and assault in the entertainment industry as well as foster equality and safety in the workplace. The movement aims to take back some of the power for women in order to support their advancement. The world saw women come out in droves to support the movement at the Golden Globes where they wore black in a statement of political solidarity.
In addition, the Time’s Up movement also crafted the Commission on Eliminating Sexual Harassment and Advancing Equality in the Workplace this past December. Led by Anita Hill, the commission seeks to “create safe and more equitable work environments.”
Women’s voices, especially those of survivors, are needed in crafting sustainable solutions to pervasive problem in the workplace. Without them, suggestions can veer into dangerous, victim-blaming territory.
Although the problematic and sexist nature of dress codes in public and private, co-ed and single-sex schools alike, the matter deserves a revisiting in the light of the revelations of sexual harassment and the recent #MeToo movement. Two years ago, Missouri lawmakers responded to Capitol Hill interns’ complaints of sexual harassment with a proposed dress code. A barely veiled insult, such a “solution” implicitly suggests that victims are to blame for the inappropriate actions of their male superiors, who have no control once the skirt hits knee-length.
Sexual harassment may seem like an inevitability with the current workplace dynamic and gendered power relations, but it is not a natural disaster that can be held off by a dress code or restricting access to women. It is a problem that must be attacked at its source by the people who are most affected by it. Anything less will perpetuate harmful stereotypes of both men and women.