We need to talk about locker room talk


Just a few weeks ago, more than 62 million Americans voted for the presidential candidate who said this:

When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.

I don’t believe that most people think it’s okay to “grab them by the pussy,” at work or anyplace else. And yet, 62 million is a lot of votes, so there are things we need to talk about. Here’s the above quote with a small tweak that’s more real than we’d like to think:

When you’re the boss they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.

Make no mistake: “the boss” I’m referring to is a man. In today’s Fortune 500, only 4% of the CEOs are female. According to Fortune, “for women at the top levels of American business, it can sometimes feel like every step forward is followed by two steps back.”

No kidding! I recently had the pleasure of meeting with Nancy Lyons, the amazing CEO at Clockwork in Minneapolis. “I’m so sick of hearing about the glass ceiling,” Nancy said, “it’s not glass, it’s concrete.”

Grabbing them by the whatever 

As the “you can do anything” comment traveled through the media this past October, Trump was forced to explain himself:

“This was locker room talk. I am not proud of it. I apologized to my family and the American people,” Trump said. “I am embarrassed by it and I hate it, but it’s locker room talk and one of those things.”

“For the record, are you saying that what you said on the bus 11 years ago, that you did not kiss women without consent or grope women?” Cooper said.

“Nobody has more respect for women than I do,” Trump replied.

For the sake of discussion, I’m going give our president-elect the benefit of the doubt and take his comments as crass, rather than predatory. But I’ve still got questions. Can someone both respect women and say these kinds of things at the same time? And does saying these things, even as a joke, sometimes lead to doing them? In Malcom Gladwell’s terrific 2015 New Yorker article “Thresholds of Violence,” the author writes: 

What explains a person or a group of people doing things that seem at odds with who they are or what they think is right? […] Social processes are driven by our thresholds—which [Stanford sociologist Mark Granovetter] defined as the number of people who need to be doing some activity before we agree to join them.

In other words, we might not jump off a bridge just because one friend is doing it, but if lots of friends are doing it, that bridge might not look so bad after all.

Consider “locker room talk” in this context. One man saying crass things is an anomaly. A group of men in a locker room saying crass things creates an environment in which people start to say things “that seem at odds with who they are.” A locker room like that would not be a safe place for a woman.

And this kind of behavior is not confined to the locker room. According to the Trades Union Congress (TUC):

More than half (52%) of women, and nearly two-thirds (63%) of women aged 18-24 years old, said they have experienced sexual harassment at work, according to a new research from the TUC in collaboration with the Everyday Sexism Project published today [August 10, 2016].

In the vast majority of cases (88%), the perpetrator of the sexual harassment was male, and nearly one in five (17%) women reported that it was their line manager, or someone with direct authority over them.

The survey says that:

  • nearly one in three (32%) of women have been subject to unwelcome jokes of a sexual nature while at work
  • more than one in four (28%) of women have been the subject of comments of a sexual nature about their body or clothes at work
  • nearly a quarter (23%) of women have experienced unwanted touching – like a hand on the knee or lower back at work
  • a fifth (20%) of women have experienced unwanted verbal sexual advances at work
  • around one in eight (12%) women have experienced unwanted sexual touching or attempts to kiss them at work.

I don’t need to find additional sources to confirm what the TUC has found; these results will surprise nobody. The show “Mad Men” is not a time capsule, it’s a mirror.


A few more words about locker room talk

Lots of men who spend lots of time in locker rooms have responded to Trump’s claim that his comments were just the usual “locker room talk.” From Time Magazine:

Many athletes condemned Trump’s caricature of the locker room. For example Robbie Rogers, a midfielder for the Los Angeles Galaxy, wrote on Twitter: “I’m offended as an athlete that @realDonaldTrump keeps using this “locker room talk” as an excuse.” Former NBA star Grant Hill wrote, “I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms, and what Trump said is not locker room banter.” Cleveland Cavaliers guard Dahntay Jones wrote, “Claiming Trump’s comments are “locker room banter” is to suggest they are somehow acceptable. They aren’t.”

This gives me hope, especially the part about this kind of talk not being acceptable. But even if these athletes have never heard this kind of talk in a locker room, it’s not enough, because a locker room is really just a proxy for lots of other places where men behave this way: bars, clubs, man-caves, and other places we’d rather not acknowledge – including offices.

The thing about these kinds of places is that women aren’t welcome, comfortable, or safe in them. So while we need to make sure we don’t treat our businesses like lockehemanwomanhatersclubr rooms, I’m not sure why we need to treat our locker rooms like locker rooms either. If we’re serious about equity and safety, we can’t.

Here’s what we can do, for a start: We can refuse to put up with people objectifying women or making crass jokes at work. We can stop saying things we wouldn’t want our wives to hear when we’re with “the guys.” We can refuse to look the other way, even when things are uncomfortable.

If this all sounds like yet another person arguing for political correctness, I’m okay with that. I’m not naive, and I know I have my own biases and behaviors. But I’m working on these things, and I’m going to fake it until I make it. I hope you will too.

The C-suite is largely reserved for men

So far, I’ve written about women feeling safe in the office, but this is a low bar – what we really want is for the office to be fair. A fair office is safe, of course, and includes gender equality in both career opportunities and pay. According to USA Today:

A survey by consultancy McKinsey and Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg’s LeanIn.org group found that men are 30% more likely than women to be promoted from entry level to manager.

At the entry level, 54% are men and 46% are women. But at the manager level, 63% are men and 37% are women, and at the vice-president level 71% are men and 29% are women.

By the time they reach the C-suite — which includes positions like chief financial officer and chief operating officer — 81% are men and 19% are women. Representation is even worse for women of color, according to the study.

The fact that women are more likely to be sexually harassed at work and the fact that women are less likely to be promoted than their male counterparts may not be directly related. But these facts together help tell the story of a culture in which women are treated unfairly at work, and we need to do better.

There’s so much more!

I haven’t even scratched the surface of this issue. More stats:

A woman has a right to work in a safe place, free of harassment. She has a right to be treated fairly, to have opportunities to advance her career. She has a right to equal pay for equal work.


Equal pay for equal work

Here are a few ideas to help ensure that our businesses promote equal pay for equal work:

  • If you’re a people manager or in HR, review the salaries of your employees, their skills, and their experiences, and fix any disparities you see. If the disparity is due to poor salary negotiation, fix it anyway.
  • When it comes to promotions, go out of your way to make sure qualified women get the chance to prove their worth.
  • Consider replacing your company’s maternity leave policy with a parental leave policy. Maternity leave suggests that caring for the family is a woman’s job. Parental leaves evens the playing field, and implies no judgement.

This Quartz article  has a few more good ideas, specifically related to pay:

What the law could do
The law can mandate equal pay. For instance, in the US, equal pay regardless of gender was signed into a law by president John F. Kennedy in 1963, with the Equal Pay Act. It will be a while before equal pay for all is a reality.

What employers should do
Employers can adopt strict rules to ensure fairness, and effectively run businesses that guarantee equality of treatment. But, this is something society can’t count on. The obvious reason is that employers often perceive increasing wages beyond the minimum they have to pay someone to be against their economic self-interest, even though such a view is short-sighted at best.

What employees must do
Salary transparency is knowledge, and knowledge is the ultimate weapon to address pay inequalities from the inside. Do you know if your company pays you fairly? In that knowledge–knowing how much everyone around you makes–lies the key to know your value, and the fairness of your treatment. 

Will it cost companies more to compensate people equally for equal work? Absolutely. But what’s the alternative? Working for a company that relies on a gender discount to turn a profit? One more time:

When you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything … Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.

This kind of talk is not okay, whether it’s shared in the locker room or the board room. But it’s not just the talk that needs to stop. Whether we like it or not, we have institutionalized discrimination in the workplace. We can do better.

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