Ideas and Issues

New Orleans   Like a good percentage of families gathered together for Thanksgiving around the United States, the #MeToo conversation about women’s reality and the experience of sexual harassment in societal and workplace interactions was a mandatory discussion topic. Included in the family were veterans of the hospitality industry as well as a big office-based insurance company and the director of a human relations department for a manufacturing operation with plants in two states.

The conversation wasn’t exactly a revelation except for the disturbing fact that it was almost mundane and assumed as par for the course by women in life and work. Stories of women talking together in the office about men to avoid, men to make sure were never alone with you in the elevator, men who were always too handsy. The standard operating procedure for years in the insurance office was just to bond together because no one believed that the human resources department would ever act. The best part of this story was a sort of justice done. He messed with a particular woman who was known in the office as standoffish and somewhat of what they called an “old maid” at the time, but in this case it was the wrong woman, and she immediately went to the HR department, and the creep was almost as immediately fired. The moral in some ways was mixed. The HR folks weren’t the heroes. It was more the right woman and the wrong man meant that her credibility was unquestionable.

Asking the service industry veterans about whether this attention and the #MeToo phenomena would really create change was more sobering. One immediately responded, “it may change things at the office, but nothing is changing on the ground.” Her head shook definitively. On the restaurant floors where tipping is still the muscle on skeletal paychecks, a certain level of flirting and almost sexualization in the workplace, is part of the business model. Her position was that there needed to be a complete societal change about how women and their roles and work are seen, and it was hard to see if that kind of movement was emerging from this moment.

The HR director chimed in later that as soon as the #MeToo trended she had sent a note to all employees in the company’s email system that they needed to report any instance of this kind inappropriate behavior immediately. Nothing has popped in her inbox yet, but at least she has communicated the no-excuse policy.

Meanwhile the list of the high and mighty who have fallen continues to take the headlines, but clearly women – and the men who care about them – in the trenches are battling at the barracks for change on the ground, so if this moment isn’t a movement, there may be a movement coming.