In Wake of #metoo, Men Have Obligation to Listen, Then Act

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Since The New York Times blew the lid off Harvey Weinstein’s history of systematized sexual assault, I’ve listened to women’s stories and tried to grapple with the truths they revealed. I listened to the women in my own life describe their own experiences. The prevalence of sexual harassment is undeniable. The universality of women’s experiences is irrefutable.

As I tried to understand, as best as I could, women’s lived experience with the omnipresent, gnawing threat of sexual assault, I believed it was my role to do so quietly. Men have to be quiet if women are going to be heard.

But the more I listened, the more I realized men have a responsibility to speak up. The truth is, sexual harassment and abuse are not “women’s issues.” They are, to an obscenely large extent, men’s issues. Most often, it’s men who have behaved inappropriately (or criminally). It’s men who have dominated, humiliated and abused women who they see as objects, not equals. And it’s men who have used their positions of power to silence women and protect abusers.

This moment seems like a collision of two worlds. In one world, men were able ignore or deny the pervasive threat endured by women in all industries and walks of life. In the other, women did what they could to navigate those dangers and protect one another, all the while knowing that most men would never believe them.

The #metoo movement forces the men who inhabit the first world to recognize the reality of the women who inhabit the other. Now, men have a role to play in creating a culture where harassment, abuse and assault are not tolerated. Men have to hold each other accountable for their actions. If we want to be better, we have to do better.

I’ve thought a lot recently about my career as a pilot. I flew for one of the largest commercial airlines in the country. Our union guaranteed that women pilots received the same pay, benefits and contract as I or any other man did. On paper, one might have thought the power of collective bargaining alone was enough to create a safe space for women to have prosperous, successful careers. But one would have been wrong to assume that.

In my day, there were dozens of men on the flight deck for every woman. And the women who sat in the captain’s seat dealt with derision and suspicion from their fellow pilots, even when they didn’t know it. I know because I heard it myself. When no women were around, male pilots would openly ask each other how a woman could have qualified to fly. They’d make dirty jokes and sexist comments.

It speaks volumes about our culture that my male colleagues were shocked whenever I’d call them out on their behavior. For speaking up when they made sexist comments, I earned the scorn and mistrust of those pilots.

I don’t deserve praise for my actions. In truth, I’m sure there’s more I could have done to make my airline a safe place for women. I wish I’d done more, because speaking up in private is the least men can do to be allies with women. I write about it because while I may try to speak up, I don’t always. I write about it because all men have been in a room when our peers felt comfortable in the knowledge they could objectify and belittle women with impunity.

Whenever a man shrugs off a “joke” without consequence, or thinks their private disgust is enough, we create room for the culture of sexism and sexual assault to thrive. We send a signal that even worse abuse will be tolerated — that predators can “get away with it.”

Speaking out when coworkers, friends or family members dismiss or demean women is just one small step men must take to end the culture that allows men like Weinstein, Trump, O’Reilly and Lauer to abuse and attack women. But speaking out alone won’t solve the problem.

I wish there were a silver bullet, a single large step we could take to fix what’s wrong with our culture. Empowering women means moving over and making room at the table. It means being an ally even when it’s tough. It means believing women. It means continuing to listen, so we can learn other ways to be and do better.

But most importantly, it means holding ourselves and our peers accountable. Men created a world where the #metoo movement is necessary. And it’s on us to create a better world for the future.

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