Very Public Indiscretions Tarnish Perceptions of All Women

Posted on November 16, 2012

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An old Army friend still works in the Pentagon.  We spoke recently, and of course the topic turned to this whole mess with General Petraeus.  Among other things, we touched on the dampening effect this could have on the careers of top female advisors and deputies everywhere.

When I was a young lieutenant in the Army, we officers were advised to get to know our peers, to build a network of friends and associates.  After all, if you make the military a career, you will likely run into some folks again and again, and you will have opportunities to help each other out.

This is not so easy for women, however, as I soon found out.  At my first duty station, it was common for two or more lieutenants to grab chow together at the Dining Facility (DFAC – or, what used to be called the Mess Hall).  One of my peers absolutely would not go to lunch with me.  After making a couple of excuses, he finally just said it straight out:  he was afraid of the perception.  People might talk.  His wife might be jealous.  He just didn’t want to open that can of worms.  “For God’s sake, it’s the DFAC, not some candlelit restaurant.  Why would anyone think there was anything going on?” I asked, but he was adamant, and that was that.  I was a little miffed, on several levels.  Would people assume there was something going on?  Did they think all women were such tarts – that I was a tart?  Or were all men such horn-dogs?  And how the hell was I supposed to build a network of work buddies if men – some 85% of my co-workers – were going to avoid me?  In short, WTF??

Most of my co-workers were, thankfully, not quite as over-cautious as that particular guy.  But there were some who adhered to the “rule of three” – never be alone in a room with anyone of the opposite sex – and I once had a commander who asked me to come stand in his office anytime he needed to talk to a female soldier, so that he would always have a female witness “just in case.”  It’s a sad commentary on men’s and women’s motivations and behavior that he felt this was necessary, but by God, he never got hit with accusations of impropriety.

When I became a commander myself, my First Sergeant insisted on assigning me a female driver, because you spend a lot of hours alone in your vehicle with your driver, and typically your driver will share your tent as well.  By then, it was not unheard of for males and females to share tents, but the First Sergeant wasn’t going to allow opportunity for gossip.  So I had a female driver.

The point is, people do think about these things.  They worry about perceptions.  And that worries me, especially when those perceptions are borne out by someone’s idiotic choices.  It worries me that a lot of high-powered guys may be thinking even now, “Huh, I better take Bill on my business trip next week instead of Sue, even though Sue is better prepared.  Wouldn’t want people to talk.”  Or, “I need a new deputy, but I can’t be seen hanging around with an attractive woman.  I’ll pick one of these male candidates, just as soon as I figure out how to spin their resumes to keep the equal-opportunity folks off my back.”

Bad enough that women still have to deal with these kinds of decisions based on pure chauvinism in some cases.  Now, guys who might have been completely open to having female co-workers by their sides could basically be scared into making chauvinist-like choices just based on a fear of perceptions.  Like that lieutenant way back at my first duty station.

And this is why I am slow to forgive women behaving badly.  It reflects – wrongly, but surely – on all women, not just themselves.  I know that this kind of misconduct takes two.  That the men are behaving just as badly as the women.  But the women have more to lose, and more to take away from the rest of us.

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