Image: vicky leta / mashableBy Rachel Thompson 2017-12-01 15:54:26 UTC
Somewhere between the main course and dessert at a dinner party, I became aware of a colossal chasm in the way my generation and my parents' generation perceive sexual harassment. It was during a recent trip to my parents' home in rural Warwickshire, England, that I found myself embroiled in conversations about sexual harassment and sexual correctness with women over the age of 50.
I learned that some women over the age of 50 feel that, in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, we are in danger of entering an era of extreme sexual correctness, where men will feel under constant scrutiny when interacting with female counterparts. And, though I'd read—and rolled my eyes—at headlines about sexual harassment allegations going "too far", this was the first time I'd heard a view like this uttered aloud IRL. Needless to say, I did not share their views.
The crux of our differences seems to lie in what we consider constitutes sexual harassment. Recent research conducted by YouGov found that older British women viewed certain behaviours as acceptable, while younger women deemed them inappropriate. Wolf-whistling proved to be the most divisive behaviour, with 74 percent of 18-24 year olds, and 59 percent of 25-39 year olds considering it inappropriate. But, four in 10 women over 55 say wolf-whistling is acceptable, and 27 percent even said it was flattering.
Among the other behaviours—including winking, comments on attractiveness, and lower-back touching—older women were more likely to say they didn't have any strong feelings about those behaviours, while younger women were likelier to find them inappropriate.
Mashable spoke to women over the age of 50 to find out their thoughts on sexual harassment.
"If it's someone putting their hand on a knee 12 years ago, I just want to laugh."
Gillian, 65—who prefers to use only her first name—said she's worried that the recent stories about sexual harassment in the news will make men reluctant to make any form of contact with women at work. "It's sad if a guy can't smile at her when he's attracted to her," says Gillian. "Men are frightened. It's gone to an extreme." While Gillian feels it's a positive sign of progress that women can now come forward with their experiences, she's also worried that these stories will create a culture of sexual correctness, that she likens to political correctness.
"If you're not careful, it will be political correctness gone mad," she says. "If you start drawing lines, nobody will be able to make any contact at all."
She says she doesn't know where the line is between what's acceptable and what's not, but she does feel that some allegations have gone too far. "If it's someone putting their hand on a knee 12 years ago, I just want to laugh. It's ridiculous," she says. If they were groped or raped it's a different story."
"I actually feel sorry for men having to watch every word they say."
Rachel, 59—who also prefers to go by her first name—says "no woman should be harassed in any way at all" but she "feels sorry for men" who might feel under scrutiny for what they say to women. But, she also feels that some actions—like wolf-whistling—aren't offensive.
"What used to be normal like a wolf whistle for example, some women would be offended," says Rachel. "If a man said 'wow, you look lovely today,' it doesn't automatically mean he wants to get me in bed."
"I actually feel sorry for men having to watch every word they say," Rachel continues.
Not all women over 50 share these views, however. Deb Gale, 61, believes that the recent exposing of the predatory behaviour of powerful men has prompted a "big shift" in our perceptions of acceptable behaviour; something she views as positive and necessary. "Women have been ignored, silenced, disavowed, and dismissed for too long. They have suffered for it," says Gale.
Kimberly, 51, is not concerned about the implications for men in the workplace. "Guys in the work place might need to start treating women with respect, and actually acting like a man of integrity," she says. "I think the exposure of men’s inexcusable behaviour, and companies holding men accountable for that behaviour is wonderful for women in the workplace," Kimberly continues.
Image: Shutterstock / StudioOneNine
So, why do the views of women over 50 differ so greatly to those of millennials and Gen Z women when it comes to harassment? Talking to women over 50, it is clear that attitudes towards sexual harassment were greatly different when they were in their twenties.
My mother, Nancy, 57, tells me that the workplace culture was very different during the 1980s, when she was in her twenties and just starting out in the world of work."You learnt to, as my mother told me, grow sharp elbows" when inappropriate behaviour took place.
"If you went to HR, you would fall foul of the system, it would be a risk to your job and not his job," says Nancy. "The victim would be named and shamed and their career would be over. We don't want to go back to that, let's look at all that and say this cannot happen."
Colette, 67—who prefers to use only her first name—says men in workplaces were "flexing a large sexual thuggish muscle they were developing." "The men would egg each other on and build their status on being able to hit on a girl and other lads would admire them for it."
Gillian says that harassment in the workplace when she was in her twenties was "known about," but "no one put head above the parapet."
Though the women I spoke to have very different views to me and my peers about sexual harassment and correctness, we are all in agreement about one thing. That it is sign of progress and hope that women now feel they can come forward with their stories about harassment.
Topics: baby boomers, Culture, generations, Harvey Weinstein, millennials, Sexual Harassment, work/life