By Angela Walker Franklin | President and CEO, Des Moines University

In the past year, the #MeToo movement has been the focus of many conversations, debates and arguments. Not a day goes by that we don’t hear some reference to this movement or the documented injustices many women still face. The media swirl around the many perpetrators falling from their high places is exhausting.

It is shameful to think women have suffered quietly for years, fearing retribution, doubt and disdain for speaking out against those who violated their bodies, minds and trust. The thought that many of these behaviors were dismissed, swept under the rug, or described as acceptable locker room talk — or "boys just being boys" — is appalling. 

I often talk about women needing to be their authentic selves because when we try to be something else, it shows. Eventually, it’s used against us. And sometimes we are our own worst enemies, as the impostor syndrome gets in the way of us stepping up to showcase what we really know to be true. The lack of confidence and tentative approach we sometimes display becomes the "kiss of death."

So, we persevere – often despite the odds against us – soldiering on to do what we must do.

Those who have achieved and reached a pinnacle role should make a commitment to reaching down and pulling another woman up and providing the mentorship, validation and guidance. There were very few female role models for me as I aspired to follow my calling to the college presidency. I am grateful for the male role models who were there, advising, encouraging and pushing me forward. Now, however, given the backlash of the #MeToo movement, there is a concern about whether men in leadership roles may shy away from mentoring women given the perceived improprieties this may create. The #MeToo movement may have compromised some of those rich opportunities for mentorship.

For example, the Miami Herald reported (Dec. 11, 2017) that male legislators will no longer meet with female lobbyists or staffers alone without chaperones and never behind closed doors for fear of accusations of impropriety. In the Miami Legislature, awkward handshake greetings have replaced the Southern tradition of hugs. More recently, the Harvard Business Review (March 12, 2018) published a piece, "Is #MeToo Hurting Women’s Opportunities in Finance?" Women and men in the financial services industry report a resistance by male supervisors to mentor, much less consider hiring, women for the same fear of possible reprisals. The author says he has "heard directly from male executives at two prominent Wall Street firms that they are moving their female direct reports to report to female bosses."

Frankly, without my male mentors, I would not be where I am today. I believe most male leaders are genuine and sincere in their commitment to developing women leaders, and we need to seek them out. Even better, they need to make themselves known to us so we know they are willing to help.

Lately, there has been discussion about how to give women voice to make sure we no longer remain in the shadows. What I have not seen enough focus on, however, is the impact we as women often play in the development of men. 

This leads me to think about the role we as mothers may play in developing men who display inappropriate behaviors with women.


The generational transfer

Many of us are mothers, and many of us are mothers of sons. As mothers of sons, we typically become the first women they love and embrace. How that relationship develops and evolves as these little boys become adults is a question to ponder. What are we teaching our sons about how they should interact and work with women? What are we teaching our sons about how to respect and treat women? What do we tell them about the perceived power they may ultimately have over their female colleagues, whether in platonic, professional or intimate relationships? Do we allow their fathers or other male role models to intervene, interfere and influence them to be something that we as mothers would not condone? We mothers are the first nurturers of men. We love them, but do we make sure they know how to love and respect all women?

I am a mother of three sons. Their father and I proudly raised them to become educated, motivated and accomplished young men. Living in a household with all men created some interesting challenges and dynamics as they grew. As a family, we set clear expectations for academic achievement, sports, music and overall how to be good citizens. We enrolled them in academic enrichment programs over the summer, planned engaging summer camp experiences, taught them the value of church membership and spirituality, and shared with them the basic premises of the Golden Rule, while demonstrating how important it is to give back and help those less fortunate.

They learned early on the value of division of labor with everyone having a role to play in a very busy household. They learned the importance of juggling school, after-school activities, family, church and community. They had a mother who always worked full time outside the home with her own career aspirations, and a father who was equally advancing within his career. Those years went by fast and, overall, without major incident.

However, if you were to ask me what did I do to make sure my sons did not and will not become men who harass, molest, disrespect or disregard women, I would not know how to answer. There was no particular lesson taught, yet, there was modeling all around about how a couple works together to support a household. There was no explicit conversation engaged, yet, we talked in general terms about respecting others and treating others the way they would want to be treated. I recently asked my husband if there had been explicit conversations with his sons about the dos and don’ts in encounters with women. Of course, there were those "male bonding" conversations but he, too, acknowledged that he did not recall having any explicit conversations. We make a lot of assumptions that "surely" our children will never force themselves on anyone or disrespect them in any way. 

Have the talk
Even the best parents tend to shy away from those direct and explicit conversations. Of course, there is the "sex talk" and "where do babies come from" talk that we all do. However, most tend to stop short in engaging further about what it means when we "cross the line" or violate someone else. How many mothers or fathers actually have the conversation in explicit terms with graphic details about what it means when "No" really means "NO?!"

So my challenge is this: It is no longer good enough that we assume that mothers who show love to their sons will develop into loving and caring young men. I would expect that most of the men implicated in issues of sexual harassment or assault had loving and caring mothers. And many of these men also have young daughters and granddaughters whom they love and care for quite appropriately. So how do we explain what is happening here? 

Is it all about power and control? What is the underlying motivation? Is it the thrill of doing something and getting away with it? Is it an obsession? Is it an addiction? Is it those who are easily intimidated and insecure who gain confidence in controlling someone else? Again, these motivations must be about power and control!

I’m not sure why these behaviors continue to be displayed by some of the most powerful men. We may never have a clear answer. What I think we must do, however, is figure out how we can change the future, by being much more deliberate in our approach to teaching our boys and preparing them for the challenges before them. It should be much more than teaching them of the shame that may befall them if caught being inappropriate with another person. I believe it should be about respect for others, respecting their rights, their bodies, their space, their futures. But, there must be explicit and graphic details shared in these conversations, leaving no ambiguity about what is appropriate and inappropriate. We spend time preparing our girls, but we must spend just as much or more time preparing our boys.

So, if this is really about respect and treating people the way everyone should want to be treated, it should be simple, right? Unfortunately, it is not that easy. Again, we are talking about basic core values that should be the primary tenets of integrity. No longer will these inappropriate behaviors be hidden in the shadows. No longer will women be doubted and dismissed.

In a report for Metroparent (January 2016, Now Media Group), the writer and a mother of three boys, Alexandra Rosas, says, "I tell my children that when we show respect to others, we show respect for ourselves. ... We can walk tall because we treat others with kindness and respect. In the face of some of today's lingering societal attitudes toward women, it's crucially important that they see women as deserving of respect. Feminism cannot be seen as an excuse to neglect courtesy and respect. Teaching our boys about the inequalities women face is key."

Rosas goes on to say, "When we teach our sons to be diligent in their treatment of women, we are making our world better and are raising valuable citizens for our communities."

Thanks to the #MeToo movement we have elevated the conversation about consent and the scar left behind for those individuals who are harassed and victimized. Let us hope the future holds a better way. Change can start with those of us who nurture and support our young men to make sure they understand and feel compelled to stand up for what is right. We need to not just have the conversation about sex, but offer explicit, candid and graphic detail about what happens when they may find themselves in a compromising position and they need to make a choice. It begins when they are young. Until we recognize the power of this early development, we may continue to enable bad actors who will be called out for displaying the stereotypical role of male dominant conqueror, acting on their insatiable thirst for power.

Angela Franklin is the 15th president of Des Moines University, a 118-year-old health sciences university. She is a native of McCormick, S.C., a member of Phi Beta Kappa and a 1981 magna cum laude graduate of Furman University, a small liberal arts college in Greenville, S.C. A licensed clinical psychologist, she completed her Ph.D. in clinical psychology at Emory University, followed by a yearlong clinical internship at Grady Memorial Hospital.