The personal is political. It’s a truism that’s been on my mind recently, as I’ve pondered why I haven’t been as enthralled by the #MeToo movement as some of my younger colleagues and friends. Don’t get me wrong (and please don’t start drafting your protest letters yet, or at least not until you finish the piece).
I am extremely sympathetic to any victim of sexual assault, as well as to those who have been made to feel uncomfortable in the office. But the idea that there is a toxic epidemic of male power at the heart of most of the world’s problems, which seems to be the subtext behind much of the political energy that has infused #MeToo, I find harder to buy.
Yes, there’s a gender gap. Yes, many women still face discrimination or harassment. Yes, we happen to have a misogynist in the White House right now, though that’s not the most odious thing about him in my opinion (there’s so much to pick from).
But you could also flip the argument and say that we’ve had a massive shift in gender roles in the past four decades — which is a relatively small sliver of human history. Maybe all the Sturm und Drang of the past couple of years represent the jagged ends of some tectonic plates that are still settling. Maybe things aren’t quite as bad as we think.
I was discussing the topic with a similarly minded writer friend of the same age (48) recently, and she posed another interesting thesis — our generation fetishises toughness, while millennials fetishise fairness. Though our mothers were the first to go into the workplace en masse in the 1970s, my generation was the first to really balance high-level jobs with kids.
Those of us who succeeded had to be very tough and even a bit ruthless. I know I can be both of these, for better and definitely for worse. I was, for example, a terrible boss before I took myself off the management track, at which point I’m sure everyone on my team breathed a sigh of relief. None of them could write well enough, or report fast enough, by my impossible standards. I’m much better as a lone-wolf columnist.
When an editor is snappy, it generally rolls off my back. Bosses who scream? No problem, as long as they respect my work. In the one vaguely #MeToo moment of my office career (not in media but during a brief stint in finance), a colleague patted me on the bum at the tea point. I turned around, laughed at him and said, “Are you kidding me?” He slunk away and I can’t remember ever seeing him again.
Now, I understand that many women in the same situation wouldn’t have had the power or professional privilege to do this. But to those who do and find themselves in the same situation, I say give it a try. Tough can feel good.
Tough I can do. Empathy is a muscle I’m still building. It takes time, and who has that on deadline? My younger colleagues, on the other hand, seem to have all the time in the world for minute parsings of feelings and fairness. I know this sounds pejorative, but I don’t really mean it to. I could use more empathy.
But I sometimes wonder if they could also do with a dose of tough. As you get older, you realise more and more that life isn’t fair. There are trade-offs to be made. They aren’t all gender-specific. And those that are aren’t all negative.
One under-explored issue in the glass ceiling, in my view, is that many women simply aren’t prepared to make the same sacrifices for office life that men are. I don’t think that’s a bad thing — I rather like seeing the children I’ve borne at breakfast and dinner. I also like to see friends, work on side projects and exercise. Many men I’ve known in top jobs simply put all that to the side. I wouldn’t trade places with them.
What’s more, my choices haven’t resulted in less money or success. I pursued a “portfolio” career of writing, broadcasting and speaking rather than a single high-profile management job, because it offered just as much challenge and good pay with more personal control over my schedule. To me, that was the smart move. Complaining about the way things are always seemed less compelling (and effective) than making the system work for me.
If you translated my feelings into American political sentiment, they would reflect the red states — which I relate to, because I grew up in rural Indiana. Many of them boast a somewhat cheerier version of the British “mustn’t grumble” attitude. But I’m a card-carrying Democrat.
I support women’s rights, immigrant rights, queer rights, victims’ rights. I’m also firmly in favour of innocent till proven guilty and would take unfettered free speech rather than over-policing of hate speech if I had to choose between the two.
I believe that America needs a European-style social safety net. I also believe that we have an epidemic in our country, not of toxic masculinity, but of entitlement. Demands and unilateral action have taken the place of debate. It’s a bipartisan epidemic, and it’s not gender specific.
I wish we could #cometogether.
Rana Foroohar is the FT’s global business columnist; @RanaForoohar
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