All the President’s Men Show How Power and Abuse Remain The Closest of Bedfellows
After the momentous unmasking of some of the most powerful men in the creative industries who used power and influence in the workplace to objectify, harass and manipulate women and men, you might have thought that today, any right-thinking man of influence, might have understood the extent to which tolerance for this kind of behavior had changed.
You might also expect these men – and it is men we are talking about here – to have recalibrated how they act and the way they react to others exhibiting the kind of crass behavior and attitudes towards women in particular, which has come under the spotlight post-Weinstein.
As the media spotlight fell upon the activity at the all-male Presidents Club Charity Dinner – billed as “the most un-pc event of the year” – where some guests groped, sexually harassed, and solicited waitresses for sex, it is clear that we have a very long road to travel before we can believe that any such shift has happened in a meaningful way.
The Presidents Dinner was an event which attracted corporate sponsorship and 360 entrepreneurs and business people, some of them household names, all employers, managers or leaders in some form.
Reflecting its past form as a raucous event, waitresses, who were instructed to wear skimpy, tight black clothing, revealing matching underwear, were asked on arrival to sign NDAs protecting the guests from being called out on what might have gone on.
After the event, the white heat of scandal has seen the club disbanded, charities move to hand back tainted donations and substantial reputational damage for some of the guests who were there.
But do we really think this be the last time we read about how men with power abuse their position in this way? Will it do away with the idea that this type of behaviour is acceptable or, that provided you are actually doing it yourself, that is OK? Will employers and employment lawyers start thinking that it’s better to protect workers and deal with perpetrators rather than reach for an NDA?
I very much doubt it. As Mary Beard argues in her brilliant new book, Women and Power, calling out an issue is not the same as explaining it. And without explaining it we have little chance of accepting the kind of change we need in order to wipe away and combat the power-abuse dynamic which remains prevalent in society and the workplace.
In the case of sexual harassment this means being able to explain how a potent mixture of power, prevailing cultural assumptions and shame are used by perpetrators to silence and control their victims.
Sadly, we are still unable to do this. Those looking for evidence need look no further than the barrage of abuse that women who research or write on issues impacting women almost always experience on social media in response to their work.
The academic psychologist Jessica Eaton describes this phenomena in her article, “whataboutery” or the attempt, to derail conversations on issues important to women with irrelevant questions such as “but what about men?”
Her case is well made: we need to get to a point where we can talk about women’s issues and get the same level of respect we get when we talk about men’s issues.
Equally, you can look at the reactions of Germaine Greer, Catherine Deneuve and Brigitte Bardot who in the week of the Golden Globes led a pushback against #metoo by saying it was whingeing and attention-seeking from women who should know how to play the game.
As the Presidents Club shows, without men on board and in support, this power-abuse dynamic is hard to break.
What’s more their involvement will be more effective if, at first, we can understand the ways in which power is used to silence women and how men and women are socialised to conform to gendered behavior scripts.
Without that, getting to a place where we have parity between men and women, will remain a distant aspiration rather than a reality.