Ari Wilkenfeld is a founding partner at Wilkenfeld, Herendeen & Atkinson and has been a civil rights and employment attorney for more than 20 years.
A little more than two weeks ago, NBC fired Matt Lauer after my client provided a confidential complaint about the former "Today" show host of 20 years. Women have come forward in different ways during this wave of reckoning. My client came forward confidentially. That means she sat in a room with NBC executives, so they know who she is — she did not come forward anonymously. She came forward confidentially because she wanted to alert the company about what happened to her while maintaining her privacy. I have received more questions about my client's identity than I can count. I understand the desire to learn her name. But it is unfair to expect all women to face the spotlight when they report sexual harassment. Especially because it is men — yes, all men — who should be facing the mirror.
In my 20 years as a civil rights attorney, I have sat with women as they related harrowing stories of degradation, abuse and assault on the job. While it is extraordinary to see so many victims come forward at once, the pervasiveness of sexual harassment is not new. It is as though we have turned over a rock and are shocked to find insects living beneath it.
We cannot congratulate ourselves for taking down a sexual harasser. It is equivalent to taking ibuprofen for a brain tumor. It may make us feel better temporarily, but it does nothing to address the disease in our culture. Worse, the short-lived relief can even mask the symptoms of a much larger problem that demands attention, meaning the same harassment will happen again. For us men, looking at the disease can be hard, because it is us. But if we are honest with ourselves and willing to do some hard work, we can do much to bring swift and radical change to the workplace.
First, we need to recognize male privilege in all its forms and be cognizant of how it benefits men in every aspect of our lives. Each of us should ask, “Would I have the job I have today if I were a woman?” Our misogynistic culture has helped every man, regardless of his station, get to where he is today. We have to recognize that sexism — which is so damaging to women — can be eradicated only when those with disproportionate power and influence yield to progress.
Second, men can no longer act as disinterested bystanders. Men need to call each other out when they hear or see inappropriate behavior. We need to invite women in when we see them excluded. And when our colleagues objectify a co-worker when she’s not around, we have to stick up for her. We all have a role to play in actively changing workplace culture.
Third, we need to have honest conversations and take responsibility for our actions. Given that men’s conduct in the workplace disadvantages and destroys the lives of women we work with, we each need to examine our own behavior and be prepared to engage in some uncomfortable reckoning. Even if we believe we did not create this culture, we cannot deny that it benefits us. We may not be the worst transgressors, but we are guilty of complicity if we do not try to help.
Last, men and women need to be able to discuss where the line is. In any workplace there will also be a gray area that covers both sides of the line between acceptable and unacceptable. Men and women need to be able to openly discuss the gray area, as well. It won’t be the same in every office, and it won’t be the same for every person. But it’s a discussion that has to happen. I am a partner in a law firm that is majority female-owned. I have known the women I work with for several years. I assume I know what kinds of jokes are acceptable. But I must always reevaluate and check in with them to be sure. The onus should not be on my female colleagues to tell me when I’ve crossed the line or even when I’m approaching it. The onus should be on me — and all men — to know what’s appropriate and what’s not. And if you’re in doubt — don’t say it.
We have a chance to foster respect for women both in the workplace and in our reaction to allegations of harassment. I hope men choose to allow brave women their privacy. That is their right. Changing workplace culture is our responsibility.