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Not Our Jobs: Making Male Coworkers Feel Comfortable at the Office Party

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Holiday party season can cause anyone anxiety: How do you make small talk with that senior manager who always forgets your name? How do you casually bring up your superstar achievements without sounding too thirsty? How do you score enough snacks to make sure that second drink doesn’t go straight to your head? And, of course, how the hell can anyone have a good time after an uninterrupted stream of sexual harassment and assault reports has implicated men in virtually every industry?

Our current cultural moment might make it seem like predators are literally everywhere, which might not be true—I hope—but being forced to confront horror story after horror story can crush anyone’s sense of goodwill towards men. Discomfort can come from more than human resources questions (what policies are in place if someone does do something inappropriate while waiting for drinks at the bar?).

Holiday parties were disturbing when women had to stay alert for errant hands and slightly slurred inappropriate comments or worse; will we now have to smile through a parade of “Not all X” apologies?

It shouldn’t be on women and people of color and LGBTQIA people to make bosses and powerful men feel comfortable in social situations, but it’s a possibility that’s too easy to imagine.

I’ve heard plenty of stories from friends about awful party experiences. I heard a story about a writer who spoke to his female editor in explicit detail about the kind of sex he wanted to have with her; the unofficial list of dudes to avoid at the one big media party we all attended every year; the text messages about late night flirtations over afterparty shots that we all knew (?) were harmless.

Even the conversations with male editors in which they confessed how badly they wanted to do more stories about women, to be more feminist and progressive, came with an “I’ll believe it when I see it” eyeroll.

I once found myself on the receiving end of a surprisingly condescending lecture by a male colleague about a topic that I actually covered—not sexual, but not exactly reassuring, either.

What feels different to me this year is that there’s a sense that men just can’t be in a room with women without "accidentally" doing something inappropriate. It’s not even a vague sense: Vice President Mike Pence refuses to eat meals with women if his wife isn’t present, and at least one pundit has suggested that coworkers can’t be trusted at events where alcohol is present lest that demon spirit unleash a monster lurking inside every checked J. Crew button-down.

What sucks, and the anxiety I feel thinking back to past late nights and towards future ones, is that my anxiety can’t actually make anyone stop being awful. That’s still on the people in power, both those who abuse and those who enable abusers.

The abusers, if more cautious in this current climate, are still abusers. What's changed is our power to stop them and to root them out from our workplaces, finally. If that power makes some male coworkers feel uneasy at the office party, so be it. We've had to put up with a lot worse.

Solidarity is in short supply in 2017; the last month of this difficult year should be about everyone coming together to fight harassment and exploitation. A few holiday celebrations might be a little bit awkward for some, but giving the gift of a safe and supportive workplace is worth it.

(Photo: Public Domain)

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