The problem is men. We are the reason women still have to navigate a world in which sexual assault and sexual harassment and plain ol’ sexism remain too prevalent.
The problem is the bad men who frequently commit awful acts, from rape to requiring women to provide favors to advance their careers. The problem is good men, those more concerned with their own station in life than equality. The problem is indifferent men, those who stand silently on the sidelines and refuse to clearly make their voices heard on one of the most vexing issues of the day.
I remember clearly the day I became aware of my own complicity. I was in a discussion group with a female friend of mine. She began talking about the challenges women face that men don’t, detailing some of the daily slights and the seemingly immovable barriers she and other women were expected to move anyway. She was a white woman who had spent most of her life challenging racial inequality. Before she could finish what she was saying, I felt an anger rising up in me I hadn’t expected.
And I lashed out.
“But I don’t do those things,” I thundered. “You know me. I treat women with respect!”
In an instant, I had distorted everything she had said, put myself in the middle of her story and demanded sympathy because I was suddenly the real victim. I sounded like so many of the white friends and associates who grieve me every time they do the same to me when talk turns to racism, shifting the conversation to prioritize their comfort over the harder work required to ensure real justice.
It remains one of my most shameful memories.
Harvey Weinstein could not have done what he did for as long as he did without the blessing of men. Neither could Bill O’Reilly or Bill Cosby or Bill Clinton and so many less-powerful men who prey on women and girls in ways both physical and psychological. Cam Newton would not have felt comfortable standing up during a press conference and uttering an idiotic statement about female sports journalists – for which he rightly apologized – if men had made it clear long ago that such thinking would never be tolerated in their presence.
Donald Trump was a 59-year-old married father of daughters when he bragged about casually sexually assaulting women. The country saw him say it – and still elected him president. Yes, 53 percent of white women voted for him, which harkens back to the black Americans who stood against the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s because though they knew they weren’t being treated equally, didn’t want to risk losing what they already had. But if only a few more men in a handful of states had declared they could not vote for such a man no matter how much their political views aligned with his, Trump would not be in the White House.
Even with all the progress we’ve made, men have retained most positions of power in politics, on Wall Street, not because we are smarter or more qualified, but because we still get a leg up because we have the right body parts. That doesn’t mean many of us don’t work hard or haven’t had to face struggle or haven’t been at the forefront of innovation. It simply means that we got to do those things without having to overcome the obstacles women had to.
Gender inequality will not end until men are more disturbed by being the primary beneficiary of discrimination than by women trying to end that discrimination.