Our nation has seen a sudden shift recently as a rash of accusations of sexual misconduct have affected industries from Hollywood to politics and even the news media. While the revelations are often shocking and the details lurid, all Americans ought to be encouraged by the progress we have seen recently as accused abusers have resigned from positions of power after victims have courageously stepped forward.
These events have made clear that abusive patterns of conduct that used to be tolerated or ignored are now rightly considered unacceptable. As society seeks to establish better norms for workplace interaction, I hope we do so in ways that don’t cause collateral damage by creating an atmosphere of distrust in the workplace.
Recently a friend of mine mentioned that the host of accusations of sexual harassment in the news have made her husband nervous about his interactions with women at work, and he is wondering whether he should mentor women in the workplace. Fear of his actions being misinterpreted has made him question whether mentoring female colleagues is worth the potential risk to his career.
His reluctance concerns me: Mentoring isn’t the problem; crossing lines of appropriate behavior is the problem. In fact, we need more mentors and allies.
If the result of this moment in history is that men determine that mentoring isn’t worth it, we will have traded one set of problems for another.
On one hand, I see where my friend’s husband is coming from. Each of us should be re-evaluating how we treat our colleagues, friends and fellow humans. Grocery stores, gyms and conference rooms cannot be playgrounds for sexual misconduct. If we haven’t already, we should all recommit to treating everyone with dignity and real respect.
At the same time, each of us is the beneficiary of someone who has seen our potential and taken the time to share their skills with us and invest in our development. Throughout my education and career, I have encountered many role models who have invested in me in ways that were never inappropriate or coercive. They all contributed to the person I am today.
I will always be grateful to Dr. Duane Jeffery, professor of zoology at BYU, who allowed me, a high school student, to volunteer in his genetic research lab, where I helped extract salivary glands from fruit flies for genetic research. I’m pretty sure I messed up more things in his lab than I helped, but he took my interest seriously and encouraged me to ask good questions and look for answers through science. Having mentors at a young age inspired me to pursue science and later become a medical doctor.
As my daughter grows up, I hope she will find willing mentors who will invest in her and encourage her to pursue her interests and dreams.
The takeaway from this critical chapter of our country’s history should not be to isolate men from women and women from men in the workplace. Of course, victims must continue to speak out and abusers must be held accountable. However, significant consequences for inappropriate behavior shouldn’t discourage good behavior. We need positive role models now more than ever to help shape standards of interaction going forward. These interactions need to be based on deep respect and high ethical standards.
Time magazine got it right this year in choosing the #MeToo Silence Breakers as the Time Person of the Year. The courageous victims who came forward at great personal risk have put us on a new path. I hope this path takes us to a place where harassment and abuse are not tolerated and we continue to invest in each other so we can each fulfill our potential.
Suzanne Harrison is an anesthesiologist at Riverton Hospital, where she is chair of the Department of Anesthesiology. She is the mother of three children and hopes that the progress made this year means their future workplaces will be positive and professional.