I had to really think about this. Would I be weighing in on the subject of sexual harassment of women in the travel industry – offering a “man’s view” of CT editorial director Terrilyn Kunopaski’s revealing-angry-defiant “Open letter to the men of the travel industry” posted last week, which lifted the veil on the abuse that she and other women are subjected to on a regular basis? (http://canadiantraveller.net/An-open-letter-to-the-men-of-the-travel-industry)
Terrilyn, as well as CT contributor Britney Hope, “stepped up” like many women have across social and traditional media channels to detail their own experiences in the wake of the public outing of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein as an alleged sometime sexual predator and all-the -time jackass, claiming “me too.”
When my colleague Jenn first asked me the question, I said I wouldn’t touch the subject with a 10-foot pole – a default setting shared by most men, I suspect.
What was there to say? “I agree with everything Terrilyn said. It’s terrible. Next column.”
Moreover, how could I write about something I had never experienced? And I would certainly never presume to suggest what a woman should or should not feel in such a situation, nor is that something I would especially want to be wrong on.
At the same time, if I did say something, it would surely be misinterpreted. So, best to keep quiet.
Yet, in truth, there is much to say, that ought to be said, even at the risk of being misconstrued and excoriated, because how else to further the dialogue between women and men that is finally emerging, no matter how angry it may be?
Though it may not seem like it, it must be stated that most men do not sexually harass or demean women; yet this mainstream too pays a price for the impropriety of a minority of offenders.
From being tarred with the same brush to having to walk on eggshells through much of our daily existence, many men fear being branded as what we too consider to be loathsome.
Where is the line, we wonder constantly, when you’ve been raised to treat women courteously and respectfully? Can I hold that door open?
And while this may pale in comparison to what women may endure, it can affect relationships with family, friends, co-workers, employers, clients… It is critical that women understand this sense of victimhood that men are often made to feel – but more importantly, why we too feel it.
For example, I was once accused of being sexist by a co-worker after a disagreement over an entirely inconsequential work matter. Had she known me better, she would have known that I am the father of a daughter for whom I wholeheartedly wish a world of unencumbered opportunity, and am thus personally invested in the equal rights, opportunities and treatment of women. And I’ll kick the ass of anyone who gets in the way of that. Yet, in the end, my co-worker felt wronged and I felt angered at being accused of something I abhor; moreover, I felt utterly disgusted that I was not permitted to merely disagree with a woman without it turning into a potential human resources file. (And please don’t assume this was a, ‘it’s the way you disagreed,” argument.) Regardless, the two of us were not going to bridge any gaps between the sexes.
Put another way, sometimes being wrong is in the eye of the beholder. Terrilyn, in her letter, for example, offers a rule of thumb for men: “Wondering if you can compliment someone on their looks without said compliment being misinterpreted? Here’s a simple test: Ask yourself, Would I say that to a man? If the answer is no, then say nothing.”
But I might argue that for men of a certain generation, complimenting a woman on a nice outfit or hairstyle is a merely a matter of courtesy. I would compliment a guy on a sharp suit or snazzy tie in a heartbeat. Certainly, how the compliment is delivered, and the familiarity (or lack thereof) of the parties can change the meaning, but, the point is, everything’s not always entirely black and white.
Years ago, I had a co-worker who was known to approach women from behind at their desks do deliver a shoulder massage. Disturbing, yes, but he did the same to the guys. Most came to merely regard him as an affable buffoon.
I once travelled on a FAM led by a long-time industry figure known for his overt “friendliness” to women. One FAM-mate confided to me her ill ease, but after spending time with him on his home island, told me she had got it wrong, and could see that it was simply his culture. And while it might have been understandable that his character was misconstrued off island, it was a sad commentary of the times that a “rare gentleman,” as others knew him, might be considered a pig.
At the same time, most men are acutely aware of a double standard that often applies. I have been complimented by women: “Don’t you look handsome!” yet I must think twice about issuing a compliment. Men can call a male boss a prick, but can’t call a female boss a bitch – they’re merely “tough,” women retort. I’m often told, by women mind you, that they are generally far crueler towards other women than men are.
Rampant political correctness, meanwhile, while an understandable reaction to the inequities of the past, can go too far and ultimately miss the mark. Can one prefer that a gay couple in provocative bondage gear confine it to the bedroom rather than a parade route without being considered homophobic? (The same goes for a heterosexual couple, to make the point clear). Or hate rap music/culture without being a racist? (Love blues!)
All of which is to say, there’s not just right and wrong, black and white, rather 50 shades of grey – a book, I daresay, that would have caused more of a stir had it been read poolside, on the subway, and in other public places by men, rather than women.
So, am I wrong? Am I confusing sexism and sexual harassment? Perhaps, though the distance from one to the other is not so far.
But to be clear, none of this is said to disagree with, or undermine the legitimate concerns of women in the industry, or to minimize the acknowledged “epidemic” of mistreatment. Or to suggest that more grievous offences do not take place. Indeed, there have been some extreme cases in the travel industry that have rightly seen the perpetrators dismissed from their positions.
Recently, perhaps because of the heightened awareness of the times, I have heard stories of some of things that female colleagues in the industry have experienced. More than once, I regretfully exclaimed, “Oh, come on, I liked that guy [until I heard that]!”
In the past, there were odd occasions that I had certainly sensed on my own that just didn’t seem right. I wondered, on one press trip, why every woman vied to ride with me in my rental car rather than the other guy in the group. But none of them actually said anything, at least to me.
More recently, I observed a seemingly respectable industry acquaintance blatantly grab the behind of a colleague in a busy restaurant gathering – she swatted him away with great tact. Independent of this act and knowing our relationship, he later suggested to me, in the sanctuary of the men’s room, that I must possess uncommon restraint to resist her. I didn’t laugh, but I didn’t call him out.
I was a little shocked to be sure, even being familiar with a culture of locker room talk (though it’s not a prevalent as one might think, I would add), but, also for both her and me, rebuking a current or potential client carried a professional risk.
So, neither one of us talked.
And that’s surely part of the problem: the failure of men to grab hold of that 10-foot pole (i.e. take a stake in the issue), and of women, who have mostly kept these issues to themselves, to the point that men who care are largely unaware.
The latter part is now changing, thanks to Terrilyn and Britney and all the other bold voices of determined, fed-up women.
So, to the men of the travel industry, it’s our turn to step up. To which I say: knock it off! No woman deserves it. You’re making the rest of us look bad.
And to the women of the industry: can we talk?
(Send me your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org)