Yes, Condemn Weinstein, but Don't Endorse a “Pence Rule”

Women should never be held accountable for men's weakness.

Posted Oct 12, 2017

For the past week, every day has brought more reports of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein's disgusting and potentially criminal alleged behavior towards women over several decades. Condemnation of his conduct has been nearly universal, although most of it has come from women, often recounting traumatic experiences of their own, and not nearly enough from men who share Weinstein’s position of power and privilege.

These revelations have led some to endorse Vice President Mike Pence’s (in)famous rule against having business meals, even in public, alone with women, arguing that “you’ll never hear about Pence harassing women he works with.” But this would be a terrible mistake: it shifts the burden of male weakness to its victims. As many (including Olga Khazan at The Atlantic) pointed out, by refusing to have normal business meetings over meals with women, these men are foreclosing women from work-related opportunities that are available to other men, which may lead to fewer opportunities for advancement and success. If business is going to be conducted over meals, which is common and reasonable, all people involved should be able to participate. The issue is the same as when restrictive dress codes are imposed on women to avoid tempting men: no woman should be excluded, or her behavior constrained, merely because a man questions his self-control around them.

The issue here is not women’s behavior (or presence!), but the implicit endorsement and acceptance of men’s weakness around them, for which women end up paying the price. Any man who cannot control himself around a female colleague should rethink his character and resolve. He should ask himself why he cannot work alongside women without acting inappropriately, or worse, instead of treating them as fellow professionals deserving of respect. He should realize that his own weakness does not justify excluding women from job-related opportunities and responsibilities—it’s his problem and he has to deal with it.

Note that I’m not talking here about men like Weinstein, who exist in all areas of business, government, and academia, men who actively and deliberately use their power and influence to prey on women. I’m talking about men who might never think of abusing their power so directly but who are nonetheless attracted to women they work with and are afraid they might say or do something inappropriate in a moment of weakness. In a sense, their self-awareness is admirable: we all have weaknesses and it does no good to deny them. But we have to take responsibility for our weaknesses and protects other people from their consequences; we can't shift the burden of our weaknesses to others.

You don’t protect women from harassment and abuse by keeping them away from men entirely. You don’t prevent a Weinstein from inviting young actresses to his hotel room by precluding all reasonable professional interaction between men and women. Instead, you protect women from harassment and abuse by demanding that men take responsibility for their own weakness. (This includes calling out your fellow men for this behavior, "bro code" be damned.) If you have authority over a woman at work, recognize the power that grants you and use it to help her advance and succeed, without leveraging it for your own gain or indulging your own weakness. If you can’t do that without limiting their opportunities just to protect them from yourself, consider what that says about you, and seek help if you need to. (Seriously, if a man is tempted by an attractive woman in the same way an alcoholic is tempted by a drink, he has a problem and needs professional help.)

Women have struggled too hard and too long for more equal treatment in the workplace to be forced to accept second-class status because men can’t handle their presence. Men can be better. We need to be better.

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