Power Creates an Unequal Playing Field

A half dozen women have come forward to say former Vice President Joe Biden has encroached on their personal space. Lucy Flores, who ran for lieutenant governor in Nevada, described how he gave her an unwelcome kiss on the head and sniffed her hair. 

I find myself having to explain repeatedly to my male colleagues that the issue is not actually a sniffing or kissing problem, but a power differential problem.  

Biden commented that while he’s valued the “human connection” he realizes he needs to be more “mindful of personal space.” He claims he “gets it,” but Biden is still missing the point.

If a man who has equal power to me nuzzles my hair and kisses my head, I can respond however I choose. I can turn around and ask what on earth he thinks he’s doing. I can tell him he’s acting like a creep, or, if I’m interested, I can ask him if he wants to get a room.  

The point is, when I’m dealing with a man who is my equal, I can respond however I like without fear of reprisal. That’s not the case with a man who has more power than I do.  I’m a lawyer.  If I had a pending case in an appellate court, and a judge who might hear the case touched me in a way I didn’t like, I’d think twice about how I responded. I may be concerned that my client’s case could be affected by my reaction. I could find myself weighing what I did or didn’t do against potential ramifications.

Comedian Ali Wong sums up three things as being important in determining how women are viewed:  Money, Power, Respect.  Wong jokes that a women who has money, power, and respect, will have problems attracting men. Her audience is laughing, but there’s truth in the jest. Despite the 19th Amendment to our Constitution which gives women the right to vote, there continues to be a power imbalance in our society between men and women.  

Education of both men and women is a great path to equal treatment, and men and women thriving financially is a positive thing. Michelle Obama tells us, “When girls are educated, their countries become stronger and more prosperous.” In our own country, however, one year after graduation from college, women earn 82 percent of what their male counterparts make, according to the American Association of University Women. Even with the recent Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, few employers are required to make their employees’ salaries public knowledge, so equal pay is difficult to achieve.  

Women who are being paid what they are worth are often in a better position to make choices about what type of behavior is and is not acceptable to them.  It may also be easier for them to speak up when they see a problem.

Women in positions of power (and the women that work for them) are less likely to concern themselves with adverse consequences when they call out men’s inappropriate behavior.

I’m a successful lawyer. My choice of profession goes a long way in helping me to obtain money, power, and respect. I work hard for the ability to make and follow my choices. But I also associate with, and look out for, other successful women. I associate with, and look out for, successful men, too – the ones who are confident and respectful.  

Men aren’t automatically the enemy in my book – unless, of course, they start acting like it.  What men like Biden need to recognize is that, whether they like it or not, a power differential means that you can’t slide into someone else’s personal space. There are other ways, even with a power differential, to make a human connection.

Frances Lynch is an attorney, a Public Voices Fellow with The Op Ed Project, and author of Draw the Line: A Sexual Harassment Free Workplace (Oasis Press). Follow her on Twitter @ftlynch.

Photo by Marc Nozell

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