Is sexual harassment a problem, or a symptom of a larger, deeper issue? The answer depends on the stories we use to define and discuss it. Challenge: Write a story about sexual harassment. Use fictional avatar characters. (If you call real people out by name, you’ll threaten them and they’ll stop listening.) One more thing: You’re stuck with the following character. Why? Because too many people really are.
Twenty-five years ago, Jack graduated law school and joined the firm. He worked hard, paid his dues, negotiated some successful settlements in big cases, and quickly became a partner. Before he was thirty, he had wealth, status, a fast boat, and a red Ferrari. The ladies considered him a “good catch,” and Jack knew it. He always had a “trophy” date on his arm, and went through a few “trophy” wives as the years went by. When it came to amorous advances, he found that most women were receptive.
“How do you do it?” asked his partner, Mike.
“I just give ’em a little squeeze,” he said. “These are big girls who know how to say ‘no,’ but they all want a ride in the Ferrari … if you know what I mean. I wouldn’t force anyone to do anything, but I can count the ones who ever said, ‘no’ on one hand.”
Mike raised an eyebrow. “Isn’t that approach a little dangerous these days? What about sexual harassment?”
“Half the time, the girls jump on me,” said Jack. “All this sexual harassment stuff is a bunch of crap. As a species, we stepped out of the wilderness 20,000 years ago. That’s nothing—a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms. Women still want men who bring home the mammoths. They want the guy with the longest club and the biggest cave. They want to find a strong provider and have his babies. It’s evolution—survival of the species. My bank account is my mammoth kill and this law firm is my hunting ground. My clubs are my car and my yacht. My penthouse apartment on the bay is my cave. The game is pure human nature. I don’t buy that there’s a problem with men or a women’s rights issue. I have a lot of fun, and so do the ladies … and I have never forced myself on anyone.”
Jack could benefit from some evolved perspectives on gender interaction, but he’s right about one thing: Successful, beautiful, and wealthy people are social trophies. The status and security they offer appeals to innate human needs and biases—and that’s not likely to change just because an environment is a corporate one.
How does Jack’s attitude manifest itself in the workplace? How will your story shift the narrative? What other male and female characters will you introduce? Who will be part of the problem? Will you introduce a young intern who’s intimidated by the power of her bosses? Another who wants to climb the ladder? A female attorney who likes to dress provocatively? A very “professional” male attorney who struggles to be blind to that female attorney’s appearance? A female senior partner who’s older and insecure around the younger, more attractive women lawyers? Maybe Bernice expects a hug and a kiss from her co-workers every morning, while Laura hates to be touched. Who else from your own work environment needs to be included to make this story authentic?
How will you change the culture at the law firm? Who will bring about the transformations of perspective and how? How will you transform the perspective of someone like Jack who’s a product of his environment? How will you reconcile professionalism with human nature? Successful television shows like Mad Men are built by exploring swirling personality and gender issues and leaving them unresolved episode after episode.
It’s easy to categorize the attitudes associated with a hot social issue as “right” or “wrong.” Rules and policies offer awkward, one-size-fits-all solutions, but regulating a problem is not the same as solving it. Problems like racial prejudice are fixed by creating tolerant environments for new generations to grow up in. Perhaps some strict office policies will help control the toxicity while the children of the characters take gender interaction classes at school during grades 3, 6, 9 and 12? What needs to happen inside and outside of the workplace to inspire true transformations of perspective? Explore the people and perspectives behind complicated human issues and create stories that shift the narrative. If you need a tough problem solved—if you want to lead your readers and listeners to meaningful transformation—think like a storyteller.