As the great, long-overdue cultural reckoning with sexual harassment in the workplace grinds forward like a self-driving steamroller, leaving in its wake the squashed reputations of erstwhile media darlings like Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer, Al Franken, and even poor old hangdog Garrison Keillor, we risk becoming inured to the weekly whack-a-mole of accusations against and summary firings of famous men. When we learned that Lauer’s implements of female entrapment included a button under his desk used to lock the door of his office, we entered a realm of cartoonish villainy right out of “Despicable Me 3.” Nothing is unimaginable anymore.
Yet there’s something missing from this litany of sleaze, a gap in the media narrative of moguls preying on their subordinates, and that is the absence of reporting of such behavior on the part of women. The closest we’ve come to implicating women in workplace improprieties are the tales of the enablers, the nameless female functionaries who escorted aspiring starlets to Harvey Weinstein’s hotel rooms, or Charlie Rose’s producer Yvette Vega, telling his harassed employees that “that’s just Charlie being Charlie.” But if the major media outlets reporting this story are to be believed by their output, there are no female principals in the drama of workplace abuse.
It’s possible that this is simple editorial bias, that reporting on female abusers is unwelcome in newsrooms because it would disrupt the prevailing narrative of innocent if occasionally ambitious women degraded by powerful, sex-obsessed men. It’s possible that the cultural reckoning we’re in the midst of is thought to be too fragile to admit any gender confusion, that the identity politics of victimhood precludes subjecting someone of the victims’ gender to the same standards as the male abusers, in the same way that it’s presumed that there are no Afro-American racists.
But this seems unlikely. Reporters and their editors abhor a missed angle as nature abhors a vacuum, especially in this era of no-holds-barred investigative journalism. The omission is so obvious, and filling it would be so emblematic of the kind of ruthless moralistic consistency that these days passes for courage, that someone among the great media institutions reporting almost daily on the subject surely must have looked for some instances of female Weinsteins.
Admittedly, unearthing a female version of Weinstein per se would be a tall order; it’s so hard to conceive of a woman who could be at once as unattractive, as arrogant, and as systematically predatory as he, that “female Weinstein” understandably strikes most of us as a contradiction in terms. But if the phrase can be allowed to stand for a person taking improper advantage of subordinates for purposes of personal gratification (sexual or otherwise), one would think that journalists could have uncovered some women who fit the bill.
Why have they found none, or having found them, reported none? The quick answer lies in sheer statistics, the fact that there are far fewer women than men in positions of arbitrary power over their working colleagues. But this can’t be all of it. Droves of women hold positions of power and celebrity in the worlds of media, entertainment, and fashion, and women now run some of the nation’s major manufacturing and tech companies. Daunting though it remains, the glass ceiling has become porous enough to admit women in significant numbers into the ranks of senior management across the workplace.
Another obvious possibility is that men, being notoriously sex-obsessed, are more likely to be flattered than offended by the advances of a female superior and, even if offended, are far less likely to complain about it than a woman harassed by a male. Before running to HR, most employees run their complaints by their colleagues, and a man who complains about his female boss making him “uncomfortable” by talking dirty or putting a hand on his knee (or neck, or back) – the rather ethereal standard of misbehavior to which some of the recently dismissed males have been held – is more likely to be ridiculed than embraced with sympathy, particularly by other men. And not to omit another scenario, a woman who is hit on by another woman in the workplace may not even register the approach as improper, or may feel a greater allegiance to her gender than a need for retribution.
There’s yet another possibility, implicit in the narrative of the victimization of female innocents, and that is that women are simply made of finer stuff, secrete more benign hormones, have been raised to be decent, empathetic human beings instead of the egotistical predators that men are taught to be, and that they just don’t do that sort of thing. A woman who indulges lust through power – or power for its own sake — is not a sad confirmation of the way of the world, as men who do are regarded, but an extreme aberration in the natural order of things, a freakish anomaly. She simply may not exist, or may appear so infrequently, like a Higgs boson, as to escape detection except in theory.
Sexual equality has always been more about ideology than social practice, much less actual lovemaking. Sex itself is asymmetrical; even our body parts are negative images of each other. Some have gone so far as to assert that the male libido is inherently brutal, and that no conversation about workplace harassment can even start without men acknowledging their inescapable propensity for sexual violence. (See Stephen Marche, “The Unexamined Brutality of the Male Libido”, The New York Times, Nov. 25, 2017.)
But there’s another way for the conversation to go nowhere, and that is if women accept the posture of moral condescension that the current harassment narrative reserves for them. Men aren’t inherently brutal, but they are instinctively cynical and deeply pragmatic in their approach to workplace relationships. They know the rules, they understand how the game is played, and they play it with a watchful eye for boundaries, both those that can’t be crossed and those that sometimes can. More than that, they know, as they have known for a very long time, that by their very gender they are suspect, which makes them more cynical still. It’s not a context conducive to honest conversation, much less lasting cultural change.
Equality in the workplace means treating genders equally, and this extends even to the standards and consequences of workplace impropriety. Real change requires that everyone come off their pedestals and talk. If there are no female Weinsteins, Frankens, or Roses, we can only be thankful. But human as we all are, that seems unlikely, and the conversation should include them.