Many people are sharing their negative experiences with sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. This is important, and I laud the courage of all those who have spoken out.
What I do not see enough of are accounts of positive experiences. Of examples to follow. Of the pattern we want to see in our workplaces and amplified in the media.
I have been privileged to breathe the fresh air of equality in most of my professional encounters with men.
As a doctoral student, I nervously visited the office of a distinguished professor whom I hoped would write an academic paper with me. Feeling vulnerable, I visited him in his office and, having read many of his diverse studies, proposed no fewer than five research ideas. He pondered them, told me he wasn’t interested in any of them and then suggested an alternative project. As a result, we published two papers together. A few years later, he invited me to write a sole-authored paper for a top journal. Now, almost a decade later, we have a collaborative paper under review and a book project underway. His letter of recommendation was a key factor in my being hired at Brigham Young University.
Shortly after I was hired, the department’s senior scholar talked with me frequently and read my work to understand my research interests. He suggested an area of common interest and we began a successful collaboration resulting in several publications (with several more papers still on their way). This mentorship was important for my successful tenure review.
A colleague and friend knocked on my door. He came to ask me if I would help him improve the experience of women students and faculty in our workplace. He has been an ardent advocate for the amplification of women’s voices. He has put his reputation and social capital on the line, proactively meeting with deans, emailing central administrators and proposing suggestions and changes. He has made this issue his central objective in service to our workplace.
I have known my closest collaborator for years. He and I went to graduate school together. We meet often and talk about our work, our families, the shared experience of the tenure process and the ambitions we have for this new post-tenure period. We reminisce about grad school. We critique one another’s work. We compare notes about department policies and politics. We expect to be working together for the next 30-plus years.
These stories may seem dull. They are certainly not salacious. If they seem ordinary, it is because they would be ordinary if the person telling the tales was a man. But I am a woman. That makes stories like these strikingly rare.
Each of these seemingly small acts marks, for me, the liberating freedom from the oppression of being considered a potential mate instead of a potential colleague in the workplace.
Sometimes the distinction between potential mate and colleague is more subtle than the stories in the news and on Twitter. For women, if the tale isn’t one of overtly inappropriate contact, it can be one of the seemingly innocuous opposite: men who can’t seem to get away from us fast enough.
Because they subtly consider us potential mates, we are viewed as liabilities, threats, risky. Being seen with us might be misconstrued as a “date.” Perhaps they believe themselves somehow incapable of avoiding inappropriate behavior. Or, insultingly, they think we might wrongly accuse them. They evade sharing space with us to “avoid the appearance of evil.” They don’t work with us to dodge getting “too close” or “creating temptation.” All of this still puts us in the wrong role.
I want to share with others what freedom from sexual tension in the workplace looks like and feels like. Avoiding sexual harassment is too low a bar to set. We should strive for nonsexualized workplaces.
The more good examples we see of men and women working together as co-equals, the more we can amplify and replicate that pattern. We all know what we want less of. Let’s talk about what we want more of.
Eva Witesman is an associate professor at the Romney Institute of Public Management at Brigham Young University.