On a recent episode of Saturday Night Live, Colin Jost captured my feelings surrounding sexual harassment rather perfectly, saying, “Well, it’s a good weekend to stay inside, since it’s 20 degrees out and everyone you’ve ever heard of is a sex monster.”
There’s a not-so-small part of me that would love nothing more than to “stay inside” and ignore it all. Even as someone whose business focuses on gender dynamics in the workplace and who also happens to moonlight as a sex educator, the culture of sexual harassment often feels intractable and overwhelming.
When the allegations about Justin Caldbeck and others in Silicon Valley came out this summer, I interviewed venture capitalist Jillian Manus on her advice to women navigating sexual harassment. The conversation helped me realize why I’d resisted doing more work on the issue: I felt like I didn’t know enough, that I didn’t have the answers.
I also pride myself on instilling optimism and courage in my clients and bringing levity to difficult topics. But surrounding sexual harassment, I just didn’t feel like I had that courage and optimism to give. As for levity, it often felt “too soon”, as I wondered, “Am I even allowed to laugh about this?” (Colin Jost seems to be giving me a resounding yes.)
That reluctance has been waning for me, in part because of my interview with Celeste Kidd. Kidd filed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) complaint against the University of Rochester after years of sexual harassment that went unaddressed.
Rather than, “I don’t have the answers, so I don’t want to talk about it,” Kidd’s approach is, “No one has the answers, so we have to talk about it.”
My conversation with Kidd reminded me that not having the answers can be an opportunity – it means that we can get creative and develop meaningful new solutions. As Kidd says, “The key to making things better is talking about it.”
Cue the pre-teens from Stranger Things
Beyond SNL, there’s more pop culture that can help us confront the things that scare us the most. Despite being almost perpetually frightened, the kids in Stranger Things consistently apply their nerdy curiosity and sense of exploration to defeat the latest terror to escape from Hawkins Lab.
The more they find out about what they’re up against, the more entrenched the problem seems – it has literally become rooted in their community.
Harassment is, in no small part, based on cultural norms surrounding sexuality, power, and gender dynamics. It’s deeply ingrained in our social fabric, which, frankly, is scary as hell.
It means that substantively addressing the issue is a lot more difficult than taking out individual sex monsters.
Furthermore, while hilarious, the “sex monster” analogy doesn’t hold. It’s a lot easier to pretend it’s binary – someone is either a terrifying sex monster predator who uses his/her power to cause harm and sexually abuse, or they’re a “good” guy or gal who would never make another person uncomfortable.
Yes, there are horrific abuses of power that are clearly harassment or assault. There’s also a not-insignificant grey area that we may all find ourselves in, including women.
Many high-powered, successful women say that they flirt at work – including the first female U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Flirting has been shown to benefit women in negotiations, and about 10% of people meet their spouses at work.
Where’s the line? Turns out, navigating sexuality at work is complex and nuanced.
Just as the cast of Stranger Things used a multi-faceted approach to attacking the Shadow Monster in Season 2, we need a more thoughtful, creative approach to address sexuality in the workplace.
Courage and Optimism
The work we have ahead is complicated, but I’m heartened to see businesses, collectives of entrepreneurs, and nonprofits who want to pro-actively address harassment in their industries. I’m being asked to facilitate roundtables of industry leaders who are asking thoughtful questions and coming up with creative solutions.
Rather than searching for the perfect solution or focusing on taking down individual bad actors, these groups are getting curious about what might remove the problem at its roots.
This Stranger Things-style approach of leading with curiosity works.
100% Human At Work, an initiative from the non-profit foundation Virgin Unite, encourages companies to take on “experiments” to address complex social issues.
In one such experiment, the company Zocdoc wanted to address what they described as a “conflict between work and health.” Seeing the ways employees often prioritize work over preventative care, Zocdoc tried providing their employees “Unsick Days,” designed to encourage them to take a day off for important appointments like teeth cleaning and annual physicals without losing coveted vacation or sick time.
What started as a company’s experiment resulted in a national campaign to get other companies to provide Unsick Days and improve employee health and wellness. Zocdoc and 11 partner companies are leading the charge, providing thousands of Unsick Days across the country.
Curiosity about how to address the tension between work and health prompted a unique solution.
I don’t know what an Unsick Day equivalent is to tackle sexual harassment, and it will likely require out of the box solutions and ideas no one has even thought of yet. But like both Kidd and the kids from Stranger Things, I’m ready to talk about it and start getting curious.
And frankly, I’m feeling more courageous and optimistic than ever.
A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.