The destructive brotherhood

I didn’t want to blog about this: I’m so unqualified to write about the subject it’s almost untrue. But this morning I thought back to a great quote a colleague used have outside his office that went something like this:

“You are an argument, if you are an artist, or you are nothing”.

(Unusually, even with the assistance of Google, I haven’t been able to track down the source so if anyone recognises it, I’d love to hear from you.)

That quote has resonated with me in lots of different contexts over the years and did so again this morning: as a blogger, you either have an opinion about something or you’re nothing. So – deep breath – here goes.

You’ll probably have seen the reporting  this morning about the prevalence of sexual harassment in the modern workplace following research from the TUC and Everyday Sexism. And let’s face it, the results are grim. As someone who firmly believes in equality, dignity and respect for all human beings, it’s a bit of a shock to the system. The headlines (taken from The Guardian article here) are:

  • 52% of the 1,553 women surveyed had experienced unwanted behaviour at work
  • Among women and girls aged 16-24, this rose to 63%.
  • Around one in eight women reported unwanted sexual touching
  • 1% said they had been raped or seriously sexually assaulted in their workplace.
  • Almost a fifth said they had been harassed by their boss or someone else with authority over them
  • Four in five women said they did not report the incidents to their employers

There are clearly a number of chunky issues for us HR folk to tackle here, not least around workplace culture, setting behavioural expectations, dealing with bullying and harassment and supporting whistleblowers. But none of those are what made me put finger to keyboard. The question that was bothering me – and many others as far as I could see – was “why”? Why the hell is this still an issue in 2016?! So here is my – very personal and distinctly unscientific – take.

It seems to me that there’s something fundamental about how we learn to relate to each other as young people that seems to carry forwards into our later lives. During what you could argue were my most formative teenage years, I went to an all boys school, which made forming relationships with girls more difficult as I was around other lads most of the time. Maybe that made it more intense than for those who went to mixed schools. But it meant I kind of understand how the teenage male mind works – and I know that if you put a whole bunch of teenage lads together, you can get some pretty unhealthy stuff going on. Yet somehow I came out of that experience still being able to relate to “the opposite sex” (as we still used to talk about in those days – things have got a lot more nuanced these days) in a relatively healthy manner. However, I saw a lot of lads who couldn’t: blokes who regarded women as purely objects of lust, to be discussed and rated even in terms of attractiveness or other physical attributes. I saw this attitude persist in some of the guys I met at university. I have since spent almost 20 years in the workplace and have seen it there too.

It’s like these beliefs and attitudes are formed during those “difficult” teenage years and for some guys they never get changed. This is one of the main reasons that I was frankly terrified of having a daughter. Now I’m the father of two young boys, I worry about how I can make sure they don’t fall into this way of thinking. Because all I can think is surely these are the guys who are responsible for those horrifying statistics?

I can’t pretend to know much about what it’s like to be a young person these days. But it strikes me that whilst the technology might be different – rather than “yoof TV” being an hour of The Word on a Friday night, we have 24/7 internet, smart phones etc – the fundamentals of figuring out your place in the world and how you relate to other people are still massive issues. And society doesn’t help anyone with the all-pervading view that “sex sells”, forcing ideals on all of us about our bodies, our relationships, our behaviour. We made sex discrimination illegal back in 1975 and yet, even now, it seems as persistent as ever. We continue to hear about pay differentials, women (not) on Boards, (the lack of) female CEOs… maybe things have improved since 1975 but surveys like this make me wonder how much we have changed stuff and how much we’ve just been tinkering at the edges. One look at the EverydaySexism hashtag and you’ll probably feel instantly miserable. Even in the mainstream media, we hear stories of women being sent home for not wearing high enough heels. Just this week there has been questionable coverage of the Olympics – even ridiculous comments on what a female TV presenter was wearing one evening.

How the hell do we solve all of this? I wish I knew – and far better people than me have tried. But, writing as a bloke, I find it hard to comprehend that that the guys responsible for causing these statistics presumably have mothers, sisters, daughters, wives or girlfriends… How does one get through life regarding women as objects rather than equally competent human beings? A lot has been written about how men are struggling to find their place in the modern world: a quick Google brings up lots of articles on “Masculinity in crisis!”. One of them is this article from Time, which contains a quote that sort-of summarises what I have tried to say in this blog:

We must have zero tolerance for the destructive brotherhood that occurs when men of all ages gather and depend on sexism and misogyny as their common bond.

It seems pretty clear to me that we aren’t going to move things forwards by allowing the “teenage boy” view of women to continue to be acceptable in life: not in schools, not in the street and not in the workplace. The latter is one place that we HR people do have some degree of influence over. So let’s all try to do something about it – whatever that means in our respective organisations.