Marlena Fiol, PhD, is an author, scholar, speaker and spiritual seeker whose writing explores the depths of who we are and what’s possible in our lives. Her most recent essays have appeared in The Summerset Review, Under the Sun and The Furious Gazelle, among others. A sampling of her publications on identity and learning are available at marlenafiol.com.
Two words have flooded the Internet: “me too.” Sexual harassment victims believe this will raise awareness of the magnitude of the problem and thereby stop it.
I didn’t join the “me too” movement. It makes me angry. Those hashtags might raise global awareness, but it’s very unclear what issues are buried under the “me-too” bandwagon. They could range from offensive (legal) remarks about a person’s sex to (illegal) rape. Positive change depends on understanding the specifics, not the unspecified generalities underlying millions of tweets.
And the specifics vary hugely.
1961 – age 10
I felt independent. I lived in the city of Asunción, Paraguay with little supervision, attending school there since my Mennonite parents ran a leprosy compound about an hour away.
One day as I walked on the dirt path alongside a cobblestone street, a car door jerked open. A man thrust an enormous purplish-red appendage toward me. I’d never seen an engorged penis. I thought it might be a medical abnormality like I’d seen on some of my dad’s leprosy patients. But why was he pushing it up and down?
1963 – age 12
After the weekend at home on the leprosy station, I stopped an Asunción-bound bus to return to school. Limbs hung out of the windows and doors. Pushing into the bulging mass, I stumbled over a crate of chickens. A dirty naked baby in his mother’s arms, snot running down his chin, tugged at my sleeve. A man standing behind me repeatedly rubbed himself against me. I felt something sticky run down my leg beneath my skirt. I wanted to move, but there wasn’t room. I wanted to tell him to stop whatever he was doing, but I was confused and afraid.
1983 – age 32, divorced, two children
I left Paraguay to attend college in the U.S. After finishing an undergraduate in French, my dream was to get a PhD in Literary Criticism.
But now I was divorced and the primary provider for two children. I couldn’t do that easily with a French degree. So I went over to “the dark side.” While the French Department had been comfortable, mostly women, I now entered a predominantly male MBA world.
To earn money, I taught undergraduate business classes. I’d just finished the first term. My face flushed red-hot when I read the course evaluations:
I’d like to run my fingers through your sexy hair….Your ass looks great in that red dress ….Don’t wear pants – you shouldn’t hide those legs…
They only occasionally mentioned my teaching.
I pulled on my hair and screamed at the walls of my dank basement cubicle.
1993 – age 42, Associate Professor
“A woman should not teach strategy. And the project you’re proposing is too much work for busy professionals.” Dr. Briceman sat in the back row of the tiered classroom. He shoved his notebook into a large briefcase. “You have no idea how busy we are. I refuse to do your project.”
David Briceman, an eminent neurologist, was one of thirty students in my Executive MBA class. He’d grumbled about the workload in my course since day one.
I swallowed hard. “Dr. Briceman, I‘m aware of how busy…”
He interrupted. “No you aren’t. You have no clue.” He rose, picked up his briefcase, and left the classroom.
My eyes followed him out the door. When I turned back to the rest of the class, they were staring down at their books.
I lowered the course requirements that semester and then turned in my letter of resignation. After hearing my story, the program director said, “You should’ve stood up to Dr. Briceman.”
The director was a man.
I thought about what Janice Beyer, a respected senior colleague in the business school, told me years ago.
“You need to do something about your hair,” she said. “How did you ever get hired in this prestigious school? You need to wear proper business suits, not those totally unsuitable long feminine-looking skirts. No one will take you seriously, Marlena.”
I looked at Janice’s prim navy-blue suit. Her closed pumps matched the blue of her suit. Her hair was a flat, uninspired bob.
I thought. You look bland. Like a man. No way.
“I’m sure you’re right, Jan,” I said aloud. She was a senior professor, after all.
No modern society condones the behaviors of men who ejaculate in the presence of or against the buttocks of a child. Such corrupt and illegal behaviors must take precedence in the campaign for change.
Men’s failing to take seriously a young female professional, by contrast, is a less egregious issue. But it is also more ambiguous, making it perhaps even more impervious to change. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg had this to say about why sexual harassment is so pervasive in the workplace. “It’s the power, stupid,” she posted on December 3rd. But who’s the perpetrator here? If we stop tweeting long enough to mindfully assess specific power issues underlying the “me too’s,” we may have to admit that sometimes we women are co-culprits, undermining the power of our sisters in the workplace. Professor Beyer meant well when she counseled me to “wear proper suits.” But she and many of the rest of us, in more and less subtle ways, have undermined the power of professional women.
And at times, heroic men step up to undo a piece of the harm. With the mindful support of numerous colleagues, including men, who valued results over sex or appearance, my career flourished. Two powerful male leaders in my field, Howard Aldrich and Bill Starbuck wrote this in support of me becoming a Fellow of the Academy of Management:
Fiol demonstrated her…. exceptional value as a colleague, researcher, and teacher.... She has won national awards for both research and teaching… Fiol is an innovative and serious researcher who has challenged the field and changed its scholarly direction.
So, yes, “me too.” But the specifics of abuse matter. We can make much-needed positive changes when we collectively, men and women, begin to focus on stopping very specific abusive behaviors in the world around us.