When psychologist Virginia Valian wrote her 1998 study on women and leadership, Why So Slow?, she argued that women’s leadership will flourish only once women in power reach critical mass, which she defined as having at least one-third of leadership positions filled by women, no matter the context.
Twenty years later, women’s powerlessness in the face of sexual assault, workplace harassment, and general misogyny is beginning to dissolve—and this is because of the strength of our numbers.
One woman testifying, as Anita Hill did against Clarence Thomas, or one woman going public about casting-room-couch behavior of men in Hollywood, failed to shatter old shibboleths about women’s credibility the way this past year’s multiple accusations have done. A woman who has never heard the narratives of others believes her experience of victimization or insult to be unique.
Monica Lewinsky said it, excruciatingly, when she wrote in Vanity Fair this March: Isolation is such a powerful tool to the subjugator. And yet I don’t believe I would have felt so isolated had it all happened today. One of the most inspiring aspects of this newly energized movement is the sheer number of women who have spoken up in support of one another. And the volume in numbers has translated into volume of public voice….this collective rise in decibel level has provided a resonance for women’s narratives.”
Yet many women are still vulnerable to stifling their complaints and suppressing their own feelings, and not only because they need to keep their jobs. In nonprofits— or politics, or arts projects—there’s often a perceived “culture of need,” in which people are racing the clock to close a deal or scrambling for limited resources to raise funds for a worthy project, so men’s bad behavior gets overlooked for the sake of some alleged greater good.
Powerlessness. And Power.
Mark Lipton, author of Mean Men: The Perversion of America’s Self-Made Man, declared recently, in the Chronicle of Philanthropy, “tolerance of sexual misconduct is exacerbated by the reality that men hold most of the positions of authority in the nonprofit world, with women in supportive and de facto more vulnerable roles.” And he proposes that change-makers “find the levers that place pressure on men to speak out about the uncivil behaviors of other men. When better codes of cultural conduct become part of everyday behavior, the men’s club will no longer protect the abuser. Time is up for leaving the burden solely on women to protect their female colleagues.”
Nice thought. But women know that men in power are not likely to cede it willingly. Seems the rest of us could use training as “upstanders.” Those who witness a powerful male donor behaving inappropriately toward a young female staffer at an organization’s event (cue the revealing accounts on the cover) might break her isolation by joining the duo, or carry cards imprinted YouToo? to hand out to men conducting themselves badly.
Let the verbatim testimonies on the cover spur your outrage, then your action. Make this season’s culture shift towards justice a permanent change, as we move from silence to speaking out, from despair to the voting booth, and from powerlessness to bravely holding tight to the power we wield with our numbers.