For Starters, We Could Use a Right of Recusal

There have been a number of women coming forward here lately about sexual harassment in Silicon Valley. Many people are basically suggesting witch hunt type tactics for trying to resolve the problem. I view this approach as highly counterproductive.

Before I go on, let me state clearly that if you have been the victim of sexual harassment and have come forward or are considering coming forward, this piece is in no way a criticism of you. It also is in no way intended to suggest that the "correct" answer is for you to keep your mouth shut.

Deciding whether or not to tell, whom to tell, how much to tell and how to tell it is both a very personal decision and highly dependent upon context. When I had a corporate job, I dealt routinely with men who de facto closed doors on me (career-wise) because they were attracted or whatever. So I am aware this is a very real problem.

In most cases, those did not go to HR. There was one incident where I emailed a colleague and informed him he was to "never speak to me that way again" and copied our bosses. That went to HR and he never spoke to me that way again.

Another time, I managed to get myself quietly moved when I learned that a man who had been calling me "doll" and "babe" was about to take over my team. About two years later, he was fired. The rumor mill suggested it had something to do with bad behavior involving a woman, either an illicit affair at work (in violation of the rules there) or sexual harassment (or both, possibly).

So, I am not saying this isn't a real problem and I am not saying that victims are wrong to report such incidents. I have been really, really fortunate and I am still painfully aware of the ways in which this stuff routinely throws up barriers for women trying to make a career for themselves.

But actively advocating witch hunts is not going to help open doors for women. In fact, it is highly likely to close doors. It is highly likely to create a chill that will deny women opportunities.

I suggest a better method is to come up with policies designed to prevent problems rather than waiting for men to mess up and then hang them high. No, that won't put a stop to this 100 percent. Some men really are horrible people.

But other men are just men who know how to do business with men and know how to do romance with women and have not yet figured out how to do this dance where they do business with women. They aren't horrible, they are just defaulting to "how to behave around a woman" and their default answer is rooted in dating women, not working with them.

I think women also often don't know how to do business with men. This is not just men. Women also need to figure out how you do this dance such that the outcome is platonic and leads to money and career success.

We need mechanisms in place to help avoid problems instead of waiting until things go wrong and then crucifying someone. I will suggest that one such mechanism might be to work on adding a "right of recusal" policy that will allow powerful people to step away from situations sometimes where they are feeling like "I don't know whether to hire you or hit on you" or similar.

Let the rest of the board or decision making body handle this one instance.

When I had a corporate job at a big insurance company, I was not supposed to process any claims that involved friends or relatives. I only once saw a situation like that and it wasn't even someone I actually knew. It was someone with the same name as my father from a part of the country where he was born and raised. Although I did not know him, he was likely a relative of mine. I discussed it with my boss, I annotated the situation and I sent the claim back to the que.

There is a saying: "I can resist anything but temptation." Instead of putting men in uncomfortable situations where they have a conflict of interest and no good way out, we need some processes where, once in a while, it is okay to just walk away from this one.

Now, obviously, if some man at your company feels the need to recuse himself for every single instance involving a woman or even half of instances involving women, you have a bigger problem and this policy can't solve it. I don't presume that such a policy would solve everything or stand on its own. But I am tossing the idea out there as a place to start and hoping that it will help foster a rich ecosystem of preventive measures instead of the draconian environment some people are actively advocating.

I will also briefly suggest that if you are a powerful man, you have a personal obligation to find some means to get your sexual and emotional needs adequately met such that you don't find yourself routinely eyeing women hungrily with whom you are supposed to have a professional relationship. If you cannot interact with any women at all at work without feeling like "I'd hit that," you really need to make it a big priority to work on that and make sure it isn't a problem for female coworkers, underlings, colleagues, etc.

This post was inspired by a conversation on HN and an article where some guy is outlining ways to up the punishment for men in the industry. It was written by a man who felt compelled to say "we care" and to suggest supposed solutions that I think would just make things worse.


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