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America’s firestorm on sexual harassment

Door Roberta N. Haar - 04 november 2017

As an American and as a woman, it has been quite bewildering to watch this firestorm centered on sexual harassment in America.  On the one hand, I applaud the women’s courage while on the other hand, I wonder where is it all going?

Sometimes my female students complain that I do not focus enough on feminist theory in my courses. I agree that these are important contributions to the field of international relations, but I also know that if my female students want to excel in the discipline they need to first learn the mainstream theories, which are written mostly by men.

A glaring lack of female scholars

I am also aware that female scholarship is under-represented in my subject area. For example, in the top eight journals in International Relations articles that are written by women still lag far behind the number written by men.  Moreover, if you look at the ranks of the females who do get published, the women are more likely to be an assistant professor or a Ph.D. candidate, whereas men are more likely to be either full or associate professors.

But at least you can find articles published by women in the top journals. I recently was asked to review two textbooks, one on national security and one an introductory text for Political Science. Both books were written by men and the references cited and the additional readings listed both glaringly lacked female scholars.

Polarization over the issue of women’s rights

At the large international relations conferences that I sometimes attend, I often go to panels that discuss the latest research on women in my profession or the state of play of women in politics.  Such research can be eye-opening, fascinating and repulsive. For example, I learned about research that looked into how women’s issues were stymied in the U.S. Congress. Sadly, over time Democrats and Republicans have become polarized over the issue of women’s rights. After the Second World War, Republicans favored greater legal equality for women, with the 1970s witnessing much bipartisan support for legislation related to women’s rights. But during the 1980s, the parties began to define themselves on opposing sides of women’s issues—a left/liberation view versus a right/tradition viewpoint.

This means that being against feminism became linked to being for social conservatism, with the identification of feminism being associated with threats to traditional family arrangements, which, of course, alienated social conservatives. As policy issues for political parties are always a means for electoral success, opposing liberation-feminist issues became electorally advantageous for social conservatives.  I should add that the electoral utility of a pro-women’s right position was not overlooked by Democratic Party elites any more than the opposite was lost by Republican Party leaders. While it may be disheartening to learn that women’s rights are used as political football, we should not be all that surprised. There are many cultural issues that politicians exploit in order to gain electoral power. Nevertheless, it is disheartening to see that conservative women politicians actively play the anti-feminist card for their own political advantages. If women are actively taking part in perpetuating their own inequity, how can we hope to address other forms of harassment?

Taking on power differentials

All harassment is about power. The bully never takes on his or her superior but feels safe in meting out abuse to those who have less course of action, whether it is because of hierarchies in the workplace or significant age differences. For example, both Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein and former NBC’s The Today Show host Matt Lauer focused on young woman and used their career ambitions to leverage abuse.

It should be clear that taking on the power differentials requires immense personal courage. Harassment also feels shameful. No one who has been harassed, and sexual harassment is a particularly degrading sort, wants to admit to their humiliation. It might take 40 years to come to terms with this shame, when the sting of it finally wears away or when events like the possibility that the harasser might become a United States Senator, prompts the victim to feel that the pain of revealing his or her indignity outweighs the greater threat of not speaking.  The same might apply when the harasser might become the president of the United States.

Culturally-entrenched harassment

But if we focus on the Harvey Weinsteins of this world, we will not address the more pervasive, the more culturally-entrenched forms of harassment that enabled Weinstein and men like him to abuse for so long.  The same culturally-entrenched anti-feminist bias that enables the politicians in Washington to make political hay from a nationally-polarized debate. This gendered culture is much harder to stamp out. This is because the role of women in America and indeed the western world is still extremely complicated and, as University of Cambridge Professor Mary Beard writes about in her book Women and Power, has much to do with silencing the female voice in society.

Stifling the female voice certainly greatly affects women personally: it effects their careers and their potential earnings over their working lifetimes.  But, muzzling the female voice is bad for society too.  Managing Director of the IMF Christine Lagarde was not making a joke when she said, if it had been Lehman Sisters instead of Leman Brothers, the financial crash might not have happened.

Dominant and confident

Happily, I do see some change.  Recently, I attended a workshop session in The Hague on European Defense Cooperation, a topic that in the past would have mostly men as participants. But in December 2017, I was gratified to see that half of the attendees were women. Moreover, the women dominated the discussion and their voices were confident.  Maybe in 2018 we can now all comfortably adopt Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s view that diversity in governing is essential. Now, if I could just get the authors of textbooks in my field to feel the same way.

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