The news of Matt Lauer’s termination added oxygen to the conversation about sexual harassment that’s been ongoing for weeks. But unlike the collective shock and horror when the Harvey Weinstein story broke, or the genuine concern over the volume of women saying “MeToo,” that conversation now seems to be shifting. This time I’m hearing a lot more questioning (“are we going too far?”), confusion (“the line between right and wrong is too grey”), and even claims that it’s all a #witchhunt.
I distinctly remember a time in my twenties when the CIO of my company kept asking me to lunch. We’d go in his convertible with the top down, and he would order wine. At first I thought it was great. I had access to a powerful person whom I hoped could mentor me and help me advance. But the lunch conversations were uncomfortable, and the invitations quickly became something I dreaded. I kept going because I couldn’t figure out how to decline such a powerful person without offending him. When he started rubbing my shoulders after too many drinks at a company party, I wanted to quit my job.
Instead, I went to the director of HR. She responded, “that’s odd, he’s such a great guy. And he’s never done anything like that to me.” Astounded, and unsure any action would be taken, I went to the head of my division. He was flabbergasted at both the CIO and the HR leader and heads rolled. No one lost their job, but I never had to respond to an uncomfortable lunch invitation again, nor did I have to leave my job.
In my 25 years working in the tech industry, I’ve had my share of #MeToo situations. I’ve been harassed, hit on, and asked by a direct manager to “show him my panty drawer.” The line was crossed countless times, but only this once did I actually report the behavior. As a 20-something in tech in the 90s, dealing with harassment was just part of the job. You couldn’t let it get you down or it would hold you back. As a good friend and colleague once said about our experience as young women at Oracle, “we were raised by wolves.”
In general, the opportunities for women in predominantly male industries have increased significantly. Twenty years ago, when I gathered the nerve to say that someday I wanted to run a company, people gave me a patronizing smile as if it were cute that I aspired to walk on water. And there were virtually no female role models that matched my aspirations. Now there are lean-in groups, conferences, publications, and organizations focused on the advancement of women. I could go to a “dinner for female executives in tech” every week of the year.
We’ve come a long way, but the issue of harassment has barely budged. I was not at all shocked by the number of #MeToo admissions, nor has one single harassment allegation surprised me. What has taken me off guard is the number of people who think a handful of high-profile firings is going too far and verging on a “witch hunt.” Yes, women are coming out of the woodwork, and people’s careers and lives are being ruined. It does feel like a lot at once, and that’s because it happens a lot. Calling this a witch hunt delegitimizes the victims and returns us to the hostile environment where women feel like they can’t speak up.
If we have to return to the woodwork, how will we ever end the confusion over where the grey line is? Many men are looking back at their careers right now and hoping they’ve never crossed the line and harassed anyone. This awareness and self-examination alone is huge. Shouldn’t we help educate by raising our voices when an offense occurs?
Shortly after the Weinstein news broke, I got a text from someone I’d known for years but hadn’t seen in a long while. He said that he’d been reflecting on the past and wanted to apologize for that one night many years ago when he aggressively pursued me at a bar. I was shocked. I vaguely remembered the night, but he was a friend, not my boss or colleague. I certainly didn’t feel he was using power to get his way with me, or to bully or harass me.
But the fact that he was reflecting in this way and extending a sincere apology makes me believe that we really are heading for a reckoning.
If men are thinking deeply about how they treat women going forward, and women feel empowered to speak up when they are not comfortable with a situation, then indeed we will have our reckoning. The near constant drum of harassment accusations give me hope that men will gain insight into what so many women experience and where the proverbial line actually is, and that women will feel comfortable speaking up early and often. Let’s not ruin this momentous opportunity for both men and women to experience long and successful careers by calling it a witch hunt.
Stacey Epstein is CEO of Zinc, a communication platform for deskless workforces.