The young man was showing off in front of some of his buddies. The conversation shifted from small talk to basketball – one of his favourites – and then to some of the women in his college class. At the time, I was one of his instructors, and he didn’t know I could hear pretty much everything he was saying.
“Oh, you know what they say about women,” he joked. “They’re like city buses. If you miss one, there’ll be another along in a minute.”
There was some uncomfortable laughter among some of the other young men nearby. The women who heard his remark stood in stunned silence. Not one of them even moved. But I did. I walked from behind an office divider where I’d overheard the comment. As their instructor, I had some authority. But more important, as a man offended by what someone of my gender had said, I wasn’t about to let it pass. I calmly but firmly asked the young man to stop in his tracks. Everybody stopped.
“I want you to face the women who heard what you just said,” I told him. “And I want you to apologize to each one of them personally.”
He smiled, trying to dismiss my scolding. I didn’t smile and repeated my request. Then, I asked him to sit with me to explain his comment. He couldn’t, except to say, “It was just a joke.” Well, for me, that wasn’t good enough. I suggested to him it was not a joke. It was not funny. It was not acceptable.
I’m sure as he left our conversation, he hated my interfering. He hated my exposing him that way. And, well, he probably just hated me. But I think that was a trade-off I was prepared to accept. I think that’s the elephant in the room in relations between the sexes. Not enough men realize these are unacceptable attitudes. Even fewer are prepared to do anything about it. I think it’s time to teach our sons otherwise.
I’ve been both depressed and heartened by events surrounding the allegations of sexual harassment and assault by Hollywood movie producer Harvey Weinstein, the past week. Depressed, because I was appalled a man in 2017 could inflict such pain and suffering on women in his employ. Heartened, because Alyssa Milano initiated her “Me Too” Twitter campaign, last week, publicly accusing Weinstein of behaviour ranging from verbal assault to rape. But heartened more so by the men who backed her.
None of the allegations against Weinstein has been proven in court. But even if only one of the apparently 50 women who’ve now made such claims can prove it, what does that say about ethics in the workplace? What does that say about men in power? What does that say about civilized society?
I know what my mother would have told me, if I had exhibited such behaviour. In fact, I’ll show you how she did. Back when we reached our senior years in high school, when I was 16 or 17, the young men in my crowd thought we pretty much ruled the roost. We – the Grade 12 and 13 guys – felt we should determine who would run for office on school council. We figured the men had the right to determine who (i.e. which men) would run the extracurricular activities. We even denied the girls in our social circles a say in determining what sports would get the greatest attention and what entertainment would be booked. Why did my mother get involved? Because we held the male-only meetings at my house.
“Pardon me for intruding,” she said having overheard one our unilateral decision-making sessions, “but where are the women’s voices in all this?”
We didn’t have an answer. And then she used a tried-and-true illustration.
“What would you think if the girls had excluded you?” she asked.
Touché! Now I’m not suggesting for a moment that any one parent’s teachings will solve the twisted behaviour we’ve seen exposed in show business, corporate boardrooms or even the White House. But instead of waiting for somebody else to change things, I think it’s time women, but most especially men stopped letting other men get away with actions, antics and attitudes they claim are “just a joke.” That doesn’t cut it anymore.
Let’s teach our sons. What’s one man’s harmless joke, is a woman’s lost job, demeaned self-worth and/or human dignity. And there’s plenty enough of that elsewhere in the world for it to be allowed here.
I was never really sure if the young man I caught making the off-handed, off-colour and clearly sexist remark, really got the point of my reprimand on campus. But I can tell you that he was a lot more careful with what he considered jokes when I was around. And that’s too bad. It’s kind of like slowing your car down on the highway only when we see a police cruiser.
If we don’t do the right thing when nobody’s looking, what good is doing it only when they are?