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Reckoning on sexual misconduct splits women over severity of judgement

SAN FRANCISCO >> In Boston, the leader of a businesswomen’s group said that some women were so angry about the wave of sexual harassment revelations that they no longer wanted to hire more men. In Kansas City, Missouri, a women’s career center is urging women not to throw caution to the wind when making public allegations involving harassment. And in Silicon Valley, one of the best-known female executives in the technology industry is celebrating the moment while advising that accusations must be followed by a fair process of punishment.

The diversity of perspectives reflects an evolving debate over harassment among women across the country. In interviews with The New York Times, most women agreed that a reckoning for the sexual misdeeds of men in the workplace was a long time coming. But ask the question “What do we do about it?” and the answer has become as wide ranging, nuanced and intensely personal as the offenses themselves.

“We need to make sure the people accused believe there’s due process,” Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer and one of the most prominent female executives in Silicon Valley, said in an interview. “There will be claims that aren’t true, and if people feel there’s going to be no process for vetting, that’s where the backlash against women comes.”

But, Sandberg added, the opportunity to address what women commonly face cannot be allowed to slip away. Sexual harassment “has always been about power,” she said. “We cannot have a rash of people coming out and people getting fired and then back to business as usual.”

For many women, the revelations around high-profile predation by men like Harvey Weinstein began as a black-and-white issue that deserved zero tolerance. Yet as the movement has flowed into workplaces around the country and grown into a broader conversation about men’s behavior, it is getting more complicated. Women’s debates about sexual harassment are splitting.

Some women caution that men need to be encouraged to join the conversation; others argue that men will change only if women collectively demand it. Some argue that making accusations on social media could become more dangerous for accusers, potentially exposing them to lawsuits; others see airing such accusations online as the only option. Older women said they were stunned at how little tolerance those just graduating from college had for toxic gender dynamics that had long been considered pretty normal; college students asked why women had tolerated sexual harassment for so long.

Most of all, many women are wrestling with how this reckoning will work in practice: Who is the judge, who is the jury and what evidence is admissible.

Sherry Turner, a women’s career counselor in Kansas City, said that she was thrilled by the movement but that there needed to be different punishments for different kinds of misconduct — from “somebody makes a bad joke versus someone being physical.” She said that nuance needed to be brought into the conversation.

A career center she founded, OneKC for Women, now plans to host a session in mid-December called “What Women Want From Men in the Workplace,” to push the conversation toward men’s taking responsibility. The program had to be capped at 300 people, something that had never happened in the organization’s eight-year history. There is now a waiting list.

Turner said she also worried about her clients being swept up in the national rage — confronting bosses and co-workers — without a safety net. “I have to counsel them the right way to ensure they’re not flying off the handle,” she said. “For many of the clients we work with, there’s also a reality of needing income.”

The debate over what to do after outing a harasser on social media is just beginning, said Gloria Allred, the longtime women’s rights lawyer, who has clients dealing with the ramifications of social media justice.

“In the court of public opinion, people can say whatever they want, and sometimes they don’t think and just hit the send button. And then they contact me and say, ‘What do I do?’” Allred said. “It’s all bets are off right now.”

Some women now worry that if men get too scared by the fallout from harassment revelations, they will be less likely to change. Rania Anderson, 56, an executive coach in Kansas City who will be the speaker at the OneKC for Women event, said it was important to add a positive spin and bring men into the conversation about what comes next for them.

“We also have to speak out about the good things men do,” she said.

Others argue that men will not join the movement willingly, so that shouldn’t be the focus.

“Men always think it’s too radical when women say, ‘You’re not in charge of me,’” said Sara Miles, 65, a faith-based community organizer in San Francisco. “This doesn’t end because men decide, ‘We’re going to behave better.’ It ends because women stop being afraid.”

Tiffany O’Donnell, 48, the chief executive of a professional women’s network in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said the wave of scandals might be causing some men to be too careful around women and overly focused on little issues. One man, she said, recently apologized after calling her and a group of her friends “guys.”

“If that’s how this is going to go, if that’s the new line, we’re going to have a problem,” O’Donnell said.

And Kristina Tsipouras, 32, an entrepreneur who leads a 12,500-member Boston businesswomen’s group, said she had heard that some women said they might no longer hire men, which was “probably not the right approach.”

For Arianna Huffington, the founder of HuffPost and the wellness business Thrive Global, the blurring of the lines around sexual harassment hit home last month. That was when a photo shoot from 2000 featuring her with Sen. Al Franken, who recently apologized for groping women, went viral as an example of his harassment, even though both parties agreed the images were meant to be funny.

Huffington said she celebrated the movement of speaking out, but also called for nuance in the judgments. “Failing to make distinctions between real instances of harassment and satirical playacting trivializes the pain and anguish of so many women who are actually being harassed,” she said.

Generational differences have also emerged in women’s discussions about harassment. Karen Hodson, 38, a vice president at an email marketing firm in Nashville, said she had noticed how women who had just graduated from college were appalled by the harassment that older women considered normal.

“That generation is coddled, and everything’s been handed to them, so they go into the real world and they’re surprised this is what we’ve all been dealing with,” Hodson said. “Welcome. It’s a battle.”

Pallavi Chadha, a 21-year-old student at the University of California, Berkeley, said that she had grown up “in a bubble” and that many young women she knew, convinced that the gender wars had ended years ago, did not identify as feminists.

“It wasn’t until recently that I realized how much sexism there was still and that I had already experienced it,” she said. “It’s not something I’m going to turn a blind eye to.”

Even amid all these debates, many women said the revelations about sexual harassment had not gone far enough. Ijeoma Opara, 51, a lawyer in Houston, said the top concern of a women’s group at her Catholic church was whether the movement would run out of steam before all the guilty men had been identified.

“My only worry is that some may get away with it just because it’s coming out too late in the game,” she said.

In Fayetteville, North Carolina, Sylvia Ray, 76, said that for the last two months, her women’s group at church had also been dominated by a desire to see more harassers outed. She said the dozen women who meet each week were galvanized by President Donald Trump, who previously bragged about grabbing women by their genital area.

“Having a man like Trump be so disrespectful of women, it pulled a scab off some ugliness in this country,” said Ray, who founded the local Center for Economic Empowerment and Development. “We’ve just had enough. Haven’t you had enough?”

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