If you believe you don’t need anti-harassment training, prove it

A few days ago, my local paper reported a story that dumbfounded me. The House chief of staff in the NH Legislature organized an event to bring legislators up to date on State House anti-harassment policies. In the 500-seat Representatives Hall, the reporter counted between 30 and 40 attendees. As he noted, “the empty seats said more than the PowerPoint slides.”

OK, as the writer also reported, everyone is super busy and many have had the anti-harassment training before, but …

In the face of the courage so many women have shown in risking disclosure of their harassment experiences this feels like more than just a slap. Chief of Staff Terry Pfaff said the training is conducted during orientation at the beginning of each biennium, but, he continued, the House has lapsed on training in recent years. The message clearly is that anti-harassment training is not a high priority.

What are we to do? How are we to proceed? The way the NH Legislature acts isn’t going to change the world, but the way it acts sadly reflects the world. The media, across the board, covered #MeToo thoroughly. In fact, it felt like a kind of salacious feeding frenzy at times. Yes, the stories needed to be shared, brought to the public’s attention fully and powerfully, but words are easy and in themselves don’t constitute change. What we need is a groundswell of energy to create strategies for seriously confronting deep-seated habits and attitudes.

On Jan. 21, I attended the Women’s March on the Cambridge Common. It was understandably (I guess) a smaller gathering than last year — an estimated 10,000, as opposed to last year’s 175,000 on the Boston Common. But the focus wasn’t primarily on the harassment and devaluing of women. It seemed more a grab bag of issues — all important, but too diffuse to make a commanding statement. The signs were clever, but there was no energy high. I left depressed and oppressed by the magnitude of what we’re facing.

The speakers’ topics were important, but let’s focus on the impetus for these women’s marches — the continued low status and abuse of women in our culture manifested by #MeToo. Yes, since the women’s movement of the 1970s we’ve made some progress in the police and judicial response to rape. We have some protections, though often tragically inadequate, for dealing with spousal abuse. But date rape and drugged or intoxicated rape are alarmingly high.

Horrible as rape and spousal abuse are they are just the tip of the iceberg in the problem of the status of women throughout the world. Beneath the surface are centuries of viewing women as inferior — less intelligent, less able to think analytically, physically and emotionally weak, and so on.

All these negative evaluations merely suggest the belief that women are a threat — not less intelligent, analytical, physically and emotionally strong — and women have shown, wherever they can (read “permitted”), that this is true. We all know that our culture doesn’t encourage or empower girls to go into technical fields, that women are paid less than men and that it’s far more difficult for women to move into leadership positions than men. It’s so ingrained in our culture, re-enforced by entertainment and media, that we don’t notice it.

Take language, for instance. A lot of attention was paid in the 1970s and ’80s to de-sexing language. We made an effort to broaden worker designations — mail carrier, firefighter, member of Congress — but all that seems to have evaporated even with speakers and writers who surely intend to be gender-neutral.

Other issues, however, were more important until brave women and men brought to our attention that the changes were at best skin-deep. This is a huge challenge. How do we get beneath the surface, to the muscle and heart of our cultural bias? We know about the importance of role models in early childhood education, of encouraging girls to pursue technical careers and for both boys and girls, men and women to believe that smart, educated women are worthy of full “citizenship.”

Their talent and expertise shouldn’t be attacked by men in power. They should have powerful recourse if they are threatened.

We know what to do. We just have to do it every, single day. And if you feel you don’t need anti-harassment training, just make sure you behave that way.

Categories: Opinion