Riegel: Moving past the ‘Mad Men’ antics

I was riding a spin bike at the gym on the morning longtime NBC Today show host Matt Lauer joined the growing list of media celebrities to be fired amidst unspecified allegations of sexual misconduct.

Watching on an overhead monitor as Savannah Guthrie, Lauer’s tearful Today co-host, tried to articulate for America how painful it was to make sense of it all, a gym buddy noted that she had spent a long career in a field overwhelmingly dominated by men.

“If I came forward with my stories none of them would be left standing,” she said.

We all have our stories. Like my friend, I could sink careers and ruin reputations. So could just about every woman I know.

Sexual harassment, in one form or another, is a deep-seated problem with which more women have had to deal with than our society has been willing to admit—at least until now.

I don’t know that it is any more prevalent in the Deep South than elsewhere in the country. In fact, the recent rash of allegations and firings would suggest that most of the perpetrators are in the nation’s enlightened media centers—New York, Hollywood and Washington D.C.

I do know that growing up in the Deep South, as recently as the 1980s, girls were still taught to tolerate such behavior, at least to an extent. A Steel Magnolias kinda thing. The polite way to deflect unwanted advances, inappropriate behavior and suggestive, lewd remarks was with a mixture of propriety, poise and pluck because, well, that’s just how some men are—or so the thinking went. Not nice men, mind you, but some.

Growing up in the Deep South, as recently as the 1980s, girls were still taught to tolerate such behavior, at least to an extent. A Steel Magnolias kinda thing.

Now, we’re finding out that apparently many men are that way—at least in the media and movie industries—and they’re having to pay for it dearly. I don’t feel sorry for them, but it does seem like the rules changed somewhere along the way and no one bothered to tell the guys.

Unfortunately, it also seems like this witch hunt of celebrity sexual harassment offenders has become the ALS ice bucket challenge of late 2017. Everybody’s doing it and talking about it on social media. But in a few weeks, when the media tires of the story and we have more pressing matters to deal with—a nuclear war with North Korea?—the zeitgeist will have moved on, while the problem, like the inevitable incidents of fraternity hazing, will continue.

Which is one of the reasons I have a problem with this whole trend. It’s a fad that appears to be spiraling out of control—et tu Garrison Keillor? The unfortunate result will more than likely be a backlash against the victims, which will only diminish the real seriousness of the issue at hand.

The other problem is that we’re only hearing about a handful of well-known media personalities because they make for a sensational story. We always knew there was something creepy about Kevin Spacey, and the thought of  Charlie Rose trying to exercise his Viagra-fed libido in unwanted ways is just plain gross, even though we can’t look away.

But what about the professors, lawyers, doctors, nonprofit administrators, business owners and executives, whose insidious, everyday actions that border on sexual harassment and reek of sexism permeate the workplaces across America and, certainly, here in south Louisiana?

Will their transgressions ever come to light? Or, as we were taught as girls, is this just the way men are?

It’s a question worth pondering, particularly here in south Louisiana, where sexual harassment and blatant sexism are all too common. Of course, there is a distinction between the two. But the latter begets the former, and a culture of pervasive sexism breeds and leads to incidents of sexual harassment—and worse.

I don’t think most men in these parts intend to be sexist. But certainly we’ve been slow to open the ranks of our institutions to women. The most exclusive clubs in New Orleans have only male members. The Baton Rouge Country Club still has a men’s-only grill. The vast majority of companies, large and small, in the local market are headed by men. The LSU Board of Supervisors is 75% male. So is the Board of Regents. The Louisiana Legislature is 80% male.

I recently served on a panel discussion about media coverage and a woman in the audience asked me why Business Report didn’t write more stories about female business owners. Because, I explained, there just aren’t that many to write about. The local market is overwhelmingly dominated by male-owned and male-run companies.

The gender imbalance does not de facto make the men who inhabit those orbits sexists, or sexual harassers. It does create a culture that feels very much like an exclusive old boys network, where it’s still permissible to make certain remarks to and about women, to insinuate certain possibilities and to objectify women in a way that patronizes and diminishes them, professionally and intellectually.

In the wake of the recent scandals and firings, there will be much handwringing and discussion about the need for more regulations in the workplace to guard against future incidents. Better HR policies. Tougher laws on the books.

But it will take more than that. It will require a sincere willingness within the culture to change the way we think about the sexes and sexism. For years, we’ve paid lip service to gender equality. But it’s clear we haven’t internalized the message. Are we ready to now?

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