Have you noticed lately that news headlines almost always contain at least one allegation of sexual harassment made mostly by women against mostly male celebrities? As I write, a New York Times list of alleged perpetrators accused since Oct. 5 holds 30 names and counting, almost one a day.
Unfortunately, the behavior is nothing new, and the public allegations are only too familiar—not long ago we were reading about Bill O’Reilly and Roger Ailes, and before that about Bill Cosby, Bill Clinton, and Clarence Thomas, to name a prominent few.
The most recent allegation names Al Franken and it comes with art: a photograph of Franken, at the time a comedian and not yet a senator from Minnesota, mugging for the camera while holding his hands poised over the breasts of a fully clothed and sleeping female colleague on the flight home from a USO gig.
I’ve seen the image and, while I don’t think it shows Franken actually groping the woman while she slept, even if there was no actual touching, it was implied and she was humiliated when she saw the photo. At base, it was a crass exploitation that reduced the woman to a caricature of a part of her anatomy.
In his apology, Franken said that the photo “was clearly intended to be funny but wasn’t,” but I think a lot of eighth-grade boys who saw it in the news thought it was funny, just as I think a lot of men would have thought it funny had they seen it at the time. I would like to believe that men’s attitudes have matured and that they now see nothing in the photo that merits even a chuckle. But having spent my share of time on jobsites and in locker rooms, I know better. Eighth-grade humor is alive and well among males of all ages, and I’ll wager that a good portion of it occurs in the offices and on the jobsites of remodeling companies.
It can be as seemingly innocent as a nickname. I once worked with a guy the crew had nicknamed “Chester” because he walked with the same limp as the Gunsmoke character of that name. That was back when comedians like Jerry Lewis built fame and fortune playing characters with physical and mental disabilities for laughs. Times change, but not if you’re the guy with the limp; it was as hurtful then as it would be now.
Some psychologists classify nicknames and behaviors such as nervous laughter as “defense mechanisms” that help us cope with our own anxieties and insecurities. Maybe that’s why some of us still laugh, however half-heartedly, at off-color jokes, or racist jokes, or jokes that belittle other people’s sexual preferences, intelligence, or ethnic heritage. But knowing the cause of a behavior doesn’t automatically excuse it.
Women in Remodeling
Lately, the labor shortage has turned up the volume on the conversation about recruiting more women into a career in construction. And there are a growing number of success stories to encourage young women to learn the craft and the business.
But the industry is still tainted with the image of the boorish construction worker whistling and yelling “Hey, baby” at every passing female—or at least those whose anatomy he deems to be worthy of his attention. It’s a well-worn stereotype associated mainly with hard-hatted commercial construction, but the same sophomoric mindset is alive and well in residential remodeling company offices and on their jobsites, albeit often in the less overt language of gesture, facial expression, and innuendo. Like the woman in the Franken photo, the demeaning behavior often takes place when the victim isn’t looking or isn’t even present.
It’s not my intent to paint an entire industry with the brush of sexual harassment, but the problem still exists and won’t go away by itself. Until we rehabilitate this aspect of our industry’s reputation, it’s going to be difficult to attract women to remodeling as a vocation.