My colleague Josh Barro floated an idea this week, in response to the news that Harvey Weinstein is being accused of sexually harassing and assaulting women for decades.
In a column
, he argued that one way to stifle this kind of behaviour is to create “more formal, less ‘fun’ office cultures.”
He’s not the only one who has suggested this. More than one writer has used the Weinstein scandal to suggest Hollywood’s “casting couch” culture — meetings in hotels or producers’ homes — needs a change.
This is missing the point, and falling into a trap that we all should avoid.
The problem here isn’t that social drinking after work, or informal cultures, create the conditions for sexual harassment or even confusion about what’s appropriate. The problem is that men think they can take advantage of women and that they will be protected by the institutions – and people – around them.
Rampant sexual harassment isn’t unique to the entertainment or technology industries (both places you could argue that are built on informal workplace culture). It’s a charge that’s leveled at law firms and prominent universities — and the allegations are often just as lurid as those against Weinstein. They’re just not being leveled by A-list celebrities so we don’t go berserk.
Formalising our work environments has nothing to do with the greater issue of sexual harassment. Even when there are formal norms in place — sexual harassment policies, or laws on the books — harassers continue to harass. Women are harassed by friends, family, people on the street, bosses, co-workers, and complete strangers.
In broad daylight.
With no alcohol involved.
The clearer separation should be between what is the right way to treat a fellow human being and what is acceptable. Men, from the time they are young, have more power in society than women do, and the second they realise this — and that there are structures in place that will support them in this belief — the ones who are prone to harass will do so. And they will only stop if, eventually, 30 years later, something finally breaks.
We need — as a society — to enforce norms about how people need to act regardless of whether they have had vodka shots or not.
And, maybe most important, we need to listen to victims, not shrug our shoulders, not make excuses. We need people in power to stand up to other people in power, even when it is inconvenient or difficult.
We need to punish men when they have done something wrong — not after 30 years of letting them have money or prestige save them. We need to teach children to respect one another and their personal space and boundaries.
No, this change will not take place overnight. It is clearly not as simple as saying “don’t harass women” since women have been saying that for a very long time.
But let’s not make the mistake of arguing that we should change workplace culture to address something that happens whether we’re in the office or not.
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