Speaking of Sex

A 30-year dialogue, and the 'integrated system's approach' needed to change it

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Massachusetts State House

Those of us who began our careers in the 1980s were certain that by 2017 sexual harassment would be a thing of the past. With the onslaught of news restricted not only to Hollywood but also extending to our very own state house, we’ve become aware that sexual harassment is, unhappily, very much alive.

In 1985, I worked at the Statehouse in the Governor’s press office. That would be Governor Michael S. Dukakis. And, for the record, I was never harassed. So straight laced was he that at our staff Christmas party Sam Adams was served in Dixie cups.

There was, in those times, emerging attention given to the topic of sexual harassment.

MIT was one of the first large organizations to use the term, thanks to their brave ombudsman, Mary Rowe. I met her during the early years of my career. She told me that people who feel harassed need a choice of options, both formal and informal. She used the engineering philosophy of an “integrated systems approach.” In other words, punishing an individual without looking at the entire culture of the organization would never lead to real change. And by the way, she said, bystanders need to act responsibly as well.

That point was emphasized the other day by Sheryl Sandberg in a column by Nicholas Kristof. “If you know something is happening and you fail to take action, whether you are a man or a woman – especially when you are in power – you are responsible, too.”

Power – those who have it need to use it – not to degrade and abuse but to lift up the younger generation.

Sex is going to happen.

And even love…that too can flourish in the workplace.

The tricky part… and I can remember Mary Rowe saying this… occurs when there is an asymmetry in the power relationship. Anyone who has control over a woman’s paycheck or a grade, is under notice – you are being watched. Behave badly and women shall speak out.

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