Home / Opinion / Columns /  Goldman payout: The message of #MeToo is yet to fully sink in

So, Goldman Sachs Group CEO David Solomon is alleged to have bragged to colleagues about receiving oral sex. Several other men at Goldman were accused of making dismissive or boorish remarks about female co-workers, some discussing their weight, apparent fitness levels and attire necklines. These disturbing incidents come from a Bloomberg News report revealing that Goldman paid “well over $12 million" to a female executive who objected to the toxic environment created by senior men at the firm.

Perhaps the most surprising part of the report is that most of these events seem to have taken place in 2018 and 2019, when Goldman was publicly pushing the firm to hire more women. Although perhaps we shouldn’t be that surprised. It would hardly be the first time that men supported gender equality in public only to casually undermine it behind closed doors. (In a statement, Goldman said: “Bloomberg’s reporting contains factual errors, and we dispute this story." It didn’t elaborate.)

The alleged incidents occurred not that long after the #MeToo movement of 2017 toppled several prominent men from positions of power and made many men more aware of how widespread such behaviour is and how unacceptable it should be.

In the years since #MeToo, I’ve had many conversations with men worried about offending women, perhaps through some inadvertent mansplaining. Men said they fear they’d be courting a lawsuit if they so much as complimented a female colleague on her blouse. I’ve heard a taxi driver insist that he could be fired for accidentally tripping and brushing against a random female bystander. None of this is how sexual harassment law works, but it’s remarkable that many men seem to think women’s legal protections are so robust.

For all the male anxiety in some quarters, it seems others have suffered no loss of confidence. In the years since #MeToo supposedly “overreached", I’ve heard men in professional settings make vulgar comments and generally fail to realize how little anyone around them is interested in their sexual exploits or opinions of women’s bodies.

Why don’t these guys just knock it off? Can’t they just go to work to, well, work? How many millions of dollars in payouts does it take to get them to shut up?

The fact that women tend to find comments about their bodies unprofessional, distracting and obnoxious should be reason enough for their male colleagues to refrain. Most men also find such comments distasteful and uncomfortable at work—and have for decades. A survey conducted more than 40 years ago by Harvard Business Review and Redbook magazine showed plenty of disagreement between men and women over sexual harassment but shared disapproval of making remarks about female colleagues’ bodies. For example, the survey presented a scenario in which a junior male employee witnessed a senior male manager make a “suggestive comment" to a female colleague about her body and then offer a jaunty wink. Even in the Dark Ages of the 1980s, only 7% of male respondents said the younger man would share his senior colleague’s amusement; more than three-quarters of men said the younger guy would either disapprove or feel embarrassed.

Four decades on, the men who took that survey have probably retired. Why are some of their successors still making lame ‘jokes’?

Perhaps as people gain power, they get a distorted sense of how interesting, funny or relevant their comments are. We know from research that power insulates the powerful from the judgements of others; a study led by Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley, found that feeling powerful is associated with lower inhibitions and generally being more oblivious to the less-powerful. Perhaps to a peon, it’s obvious what sorts of remarks are best avoided. But as a person becomes more powerful, he gradually loses his sensors for cringeworthy remarks.

Is there a way to finally keep ‘locker room’ talk out of offices? Companies have tried. Many corporate trainings aimed at preventing sexual harassment also have ‘bystander training’ aimed at getting witnesses to call out bad behaviour. In an ideal world, anyone—male or female—who witnesses such remarks would tell the offender to cool it. But that’s easier said than done when the person making tasteless comments is the boss, much less the CEO. At a football game, we don’t ask benchwarmers to throw flags on the field when a star player of their own team commits a flagrant foul.

Industries with more women overall and more women in power tend to see less of this sort of thing. But that’s a chicken-egg problem: It’s tough to fix an industry’s gender imbalance when the incumbent leaders are so crass. No, there’s a much simpler and more straightforward solution: Guys, it’s time to zip it.

Sarah Green Carmichael is a Bloomberg Opinion editor.

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