Learn How to Shift From Domination to Partnership

The Center for Partnership Studies and Relationships First (co-founded by Helen LaKelly Hunt and Harville Hendrix, pictured above) are hosting a webinar on September 12 to teach Safe Conversations methods of communication. (Photo Credit: Relationships First)

Members of the feminist giving community: An upcoming webinar co-led by Helen LaKelly Hunt could be the perfect opportunity to learn some new skills for healthier relationships.

Relationships First and the Center for Partnership Studies (CPS) are joining forces next month for Safe Conversations: Shifting from Domination to Partnership in Relationship. Held 11:00 – 12:30 PR (2:00 – 3:30 ET) on Thursday, September 12th, 2019, this FREE webinar focuses on the ways people can improve their relationships through quality communication skills.

Read More

Paternity Leave as a Powerful Tool for Improving Gender Equity

Dove has partnered with Promundo to promote paternity leave, with part of the campaign including “The Pledge for paternity Leave” where men and allies can pledge to support paternity leave policies. (Image Credit: Dove Men+Care)

A powerful tool to increase gender equity and strengthen families is to expand paternity leave, giving men greater attachment and involvement with their young children, and lessening the burden on women.

Dove Men+Care, in partnership with the global gender justice organization Promundo, is studying the impact of paternity leave on gender equality, and revealing the many benefits that accrue to employers, parents and society when men have greater access to paid leave and participate more fully in child rearing. (The article “Why championing paternity leave empowers men, women and business,” appearing on the Unilever website, summarizes some of these findings).

Read More

Powerful Men Backing Feminism: Obama and Bill Surprise Melinda

In a video appearance, Barack Obama talks with Bill Gates about how to surprise Melinda Gates at the end of her book tour. “Please tell Melinda I’m committed to the Lift. We’re gonna do everything we can to keep pushing until every single girl has the rights and opportunities and the freedom to go as far as her dreams are going to take her,” said Obama in the call. (Image Credit: Twitter video)

Men make great feminist philanthropists, too.

On May 9th, during the final stop of the tour for Melinda Gates’ new book, The Moment of Lift, audience members in Seattle got a surprise video visit from former President Barack Obama.

In an introductory speech that shocked Melinda herself, her husband Bill Gates revealed that he had been unsure how best to introduce Melinda for the most important event of her tour, so he began “secretly scheming” with the former President to decide on the best method — and posted their “brainstorming” session on Twitter.

Read More

Empowering Women by Changing Men: Promundo’s Global Fight for Gender Equality

Giovanna Lauro, Vice President of Programs and Research at Promundo, talked with Philanthropy Women about finding key entry points for reaching men, in order to change gender norms. Some of these entry points include sports and prenatal education for families.

A great deal of emphasis in feminist philanthropy is placed on women, and changing the role of women in society. But what about men? What role can men play in challenging gender norms, and what initiatives are gender equality organizations taking to reach men?

To further explore these questions, I spoke to Giovanna Lauro, Vice President of Programs and Research at Promundo, by telephone from her D.C. office. Promundo was founded in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil in 1997, working with young men in Rio’s poorest communities on transforming gender norms and concepts of masculinity. It has since taken that approach far beyond Brazil, and its website notes, “Promundo works to promote gender equality and create a world free from violence by engaging men and boys in partnership with women and girls.”

The organization’s expansion from the global South to global North makes it an anomaly, as many NGOs start in wealthy countries and then move into less developed nations. Regardless, Lauro says that there is a commonality to the organization’s work, wherever it takes place, namely, “a frustration with the limits of putting the burden of change on women and girls only.” One can work to empower women and girls all one wants, but it’s a tough mandate without change occurring among the other half of the population.

Promundo’s Washington, D.C. office opened in 2011, allowing the organization to expand its reach globally to more than 40 nations. To date, Promundo’s projects and technical assistance have reached roughly 10 million individuals, including over 4,500 health professionals, 22,000 educators, 1,400 members of the police and military, and 300 government officials.

The emphasis on masculinities—what it means to be a man—separates Promundo from many NGOs in the gender-equity field. Lauro argues that continued female empowerment requires men and boys to see themselves as allies and partners, not adversaries. Moreover, change is not a zero-sum game; men and boys also gain in many ways when rigid attitudes toward gender are challenged.

Promundo’s “Manhood 2.0” project, developed in conjunction with the University of Pittsburgh, aims to prevent teen dating violence by engaging young males aged 15-24 in understanding the effects of harmful gender norms. Manhood 2.0 is modelled on Promundo’s Program H (named after homens and hombres, the Portuguese and Spanish words for men) which launched in 2002. Employed by Promundo and its partners in 34 countries worldwide, Program H is based on research with young Brazilian men who exhibited more gender-equitable attitudes than others in their demographic cohort. Men expressing less rigid attitudes around gender roles typically have peer group support in this area, positive personal experiences around gender equality, and male role models who express support for gender equality.

Stereotypical and rigidly enforced conceptions of gender are toxic to all. Statistics indicate the high rate of male violence against women, but it’s not as if men are untouched by violence. They are twice as likely as women to die of suicide, and comprise over three-quarters of homicide victims in the U.S. The large number of male lives lost in wars and other armed conflicts goes without saying. Research by Promundo and other organizations indicates that many of these negative outcomes have their basis in overly rigid conceptions of masculinity. Promundo’s report “Masculine Norms and Violence: Making the Connections” explores this relationship.

Engaging Men Through Pre-Natal Programs and Soccer

Engaging with young men in the U.S. and abroad around harmful gender norms is a noble goal, but how does one lead the male horse to the trough of gender equity? Firstly, Promundo identifies local partners who can make a difference. “Find a facilitator who believes in what they preach,” says Lauro, “someone who has shown a commitment or potential for working for gender equality.” Next, she says, it’s vital to “incorporate contextual intervention” in recruiting and retaining participants. In other words, don’t place an announcement for a gender-equity workshop in the local paper and expect men to rush the doors. Lauro notes two specific angles that Promundo has tried: fatherhood and soccer.

In Chile (and other locales) sessions on gender norms have been rolled into pre-natal programs for first-time dads. Fatherhood, family, child-rearing and gender norms are intertwined, and Lauro notes that a group for expectant fathers can function as “a place where men can have meaningful discussion around gender and express themselves in a safe space.” Promundo is a sponsor of the State of the World’s Fathers report series examining men’s contributions to parenting and caregiving globally. These are published as part of the Men Care (“a global fatherhood campaign”) which Promundo co-founded and coordinates.

Sports is another approach used by Promundo to recruit young men to explore gender-equity and masculinity. The study “Engaging men to prevent gender-based violence” sponsored by Promundo and the UN Trust Fund to End Violence Against Women documents a Brazilian program that used soccer to engage men around the issue of gender-based violence. According to the report, “Sports, particularly weekly football (soccer) matches were used as a venue for dialogue and an opportunity to convey the themes of the workshops.” The same report also details programs aimed at understanding and combating gender-based violence that were organized around the workplace (Rwanda), the health sector (Chile), and the community (India). Regardless of the setting, scale or target of the intervention, “We focus on building local partnerships with local organizations,” says Lauro.

The only places where Promundo implements projects directly using its own staff is on its home turf of Brazil, the United States, and in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where in 2014 Promundo co-founded the NGO Living Peace with local partners. In Eastern DRC, Promundo has worked to promote gender equity in the wake of a brutal conflict which resulted in millions of people being injured, killed, and displaced. The DRC is notable for a very high level of sexual violence, not just as part of the armed conflict, but also in the home and elsewhere. Promundo’s outreach has sought to combat the prevalence of attitudes and practices, including ones about masculinity, which had embedded gender violence so deeply in that society. “We take into account trauma and how this affects behavior,” says Lauro.

Measuring Concrete Change

Promoting gender equity is not easy, and approaches must vary. She notes that sometimes norms change, and then drive a change in behavior. Other times a behavior—which might be encouraged by a public policy like parental leave for both women and men—can produce a change in attitudes, which subsequently influences behavior, and so on. It is not always easy to separate cause and effect. Regardless, the Italian-born Lauro, who has a Ph.D. in political science from Oxford, and previously served as Associate Director of the Women and Population Programme on behalf of the United Nations Foundation, believes in the power of research. “Our goal is to ensure that we can measure concrete change around attitudes, behaviors and norms,” she says.

To this end, Promundo and the International Center for Research on Women have created the International Men and Gender Equality Survey (IMAGES). This household survey probes men’s and women’s practices and attitudes around gender norms, gender-equality policies, care-work distribution, intimate partner violence, health, economic stress and other issues facing women, men, and families. As of 2017, notes Lauro, IMAGES and IMAGES-inspired studies have been administered to more than 40,000 men and 20,000 women in nearly 40 countries. Moreover, Lauro describes the IMAGES survey as an “open source” tool which “can be used by local organizations to inform their own work.”

Promundo uses research not just to take the temperature of a given community regarding gender-equity, sexual violence and other topics, but also to evaluate whether the programs that it and its partners sponsor are having an impact. Do they really produce a change in attitudes and practices? How, I wondered, can one know if a program simply teaches its participants to talk a good game about gender equity to researchers, but leave the reality unchanged?

Lauro notes that a rigorous attempt to gauge the impact of programs and interventions requires more than asking participants easily-answered questions. “From our research, we know that when we word questions in the positive, everyone answers the politically correct ‘yes.’” In other words, asking, “Do you support equality between men and women?” is likely to elicit positive answers, but more authentic responses come from creative questions. “For example,” says Lauro, “we don’t ask ‘have you ever beaten your partner?’ Instead, we ask, ‘how often have you beaten your partner?’” The idea is to remove the cues that would push respondents toward the “correct” response. Furthermore, says Lauro, to corroborate the trends highlighted in men’s responses, women are surveyed as well to find out if they have noticed a reduction in violence. Finally, notes Lauro, “At times we employ a control group which helps isolate the impact of the intervention.” This commitment to research has helped Promundo weed out or modify interventions which have been ineffective in promoting change.

Lauro has a long history of work in this area, including her Ph.D. thesis, which addressed the double standard of European governments toward the global South on harmful gender norms. The Europeans would advocate for women’s rights in Africa or Asia, but at home would use contentious gender issues as a wedge to demonize or punish immigrant communities rather than protect women. Lauro recommends that issues such as child or forced marriage, wherever it occurs, be “framed first and foremost as a human rights issue rather than a cultural practice.”

Promundo works with NGOs and multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, and the World Health Organization. These stakeholders have partnered with Promundo, or adopted their programs and implemented them in communities around the world. Promundo receives funding from bilateral and multilateral donors, foundations, international NGOs, and individuals. A range of feminist-friendly foundations also support Promundo, “There is a large pool of funders committed to combating gender-based violence,” says Lauro. Other foundations, she notes, are more interested in thematic work on fatherhood and caregiving, gender and youth, or the ramifications for women of large-scale conflict resulting from local gangs, or from ethnic, tribal, national or other differences. Regardless, funding and advocacy around male conceptions of masculinity and gender represents an important part of the fight for gender equality.

Related:

Potluck Power: How This Women’s Giving Circle Feeds Global Gender Equity

Hamutal Gouri: Seven Steps to Growing Feminist Funding Eco-Systems

World Bank Makes 10 Grants Totaling $1.14 million for Preventing Gender Based Violence

Praising the Deeds of Women: How Gender Equity and Reconciliation Can Change the WorldRead More

WFN Summit Explores What it Will Take to Get More Women Into Office

Women’s Funding Network recently hosted a summit in New York, bringing together thought leadership to grow the movement for women’s equality.

Feminist leader and journalist Marianne Schnall’s eight-year-old daughter had a striking question after the election of Barack Obama in 2008. Why have we not had a woman president?

The question wouldn’t go away for Schnall, and soon she found herself bringing it up to thought leaders and scholars, trying to figure out what it would take to put a woman in the highest governmental office in America.

One thing Schnall realized in this process was the need for stronger coalition-building across progressive movements. “This isn’t a women’s issue. It’s a human issue. It’s an issue of having a reflective democracy, and that’s why we need to have men be part of these conversations,” said Schnall.

Marianne Schnall, Founder of Feminist.com, introduces the panelists.

Schnall went on to talk about how “Right now, we’re in this moment we’re realizing that we need women for their voices and their visions,” but she also stressed the need for stronger alliances with men as a critical factor in what it will take to get a woman elected as President, and to bring more women into political leadership in general.

Susannah Wellford on Why She Doesn’t Believe the Hype

“There is all this hype that this is the year of the woman, and we are really going to be able to change things now, and for two reasons that I’ll tell you, I don’t feel very hopeful about it,” said Susannah Wellford, Founder of Running Start, a nonprofit organization that educates young women and girls about running for office.

Susannah Wellford, Founder of Running Start

Wellford referenced the 2008 election as a time when there was a big surge of interest in Running Start’s programs to help high schoolers and others learn about running for office. More recently in the run-up to the 2016 election, Wellford said there was not this level of enthusiasm about women joining the legislative bodies of our country. “It didn’t happen,” said Wellford.

Wellford’s second reason for concern about the success of this year’s women running for office relates to the huge advantages enjoyed by incumbents in our election process. “We would be wise to do more to change that system,” said Wellford.

She also spoke about the critical need for women’s equality to become a more gender neutral cause.  “We have to make a good, strong, persuasive argument that this is not just about being fair to women….it’s really about creating a stronger, better society for everyone.”

Peeler-Allen Stresses the Need for More Inclusion

Kimberly Peeler-Allen, Founder of Higher Heights

Kimberly Peeler-Allen, Founder of Higher Heights, talked about how to bring in more intersections when building the pipeline for political leaders. “I run higher heights, harnessing the power of black women to run for public office. When we’re talking about inclusion and talking about more inclusion of women, it often has two W’s — white women. It’s incumbent on all of us who are very aware of this to include ALL women. Make sure those voices are at the table, because often they are not.”

Neuwirth on the Future of ERA and Beyond

Jessica Neuwirth, Co-founder of Equality Now and President of the Equal Rights Amendment Coalition, talked about the Equal Rights Amendment and the ongoing strategy to pass a national bill in the United States protecting women’s rights. A lot of people under a certain age have no idea what the ERA is, said Neuwirth.”ERA was passed in 1972 by congress, but 10 years later, we still did not have enough states to ratify it. We had 35 states and needed 38. In 1982, when it still wasn’t ratified, it sort of fell off the radar screen.”

Jessica Neuwirth, Co-founder of Equality and President of the Equal Rights Amendment Coalition,

But Neuwirth said that there has been a recent resurgence in people wanting the ERA to pass. “It shouldn’t be that hard.” There are always men in the movement for ERA, but a lot has changed since the 70’s that should make it easier, not to mention the wave of #MeToo that has just come up recently.” Neuwirth talked about the critical role that legislators like Carolyn Maloney have played in continuing the fight to keep ERA on the table and ready for passage.

Neuwirth shared that there is also another strategy being attempted to pass ERA, which would involve removing the deadline on the legislation. In the meantime, work has gone forward with getting three more states to ratify ERA. “Nevada recently just ratified the ERA. Illinois is now considering it.” If Illinois ratifies the ERA, Neuwirth explained that that would mean only one more state needs to ratify it to get it passed.

Most constitutions already have prohib against sex discrimination,” said Neuwirth then talked about new legislation being floated to broaden the definitions of racial and gender and equality. The new legislation “defines sex very broadly to include gender identity, sexual orientation, and  defines race very broadly and includes other forms of discrimination.”

“Why should men care about gender equality movements?” asked Neuwirth. “Inequality is bad for everyone, and equality is good for everyone, and there are so many studies that show that,” said Neuwirth.

Katz: “He’s not just a white man. He’s an aggressive bully white man.”

Jackson Katz, Author of Man Enough and Macho Paradox, wanted to add a few points about the 2016 election to the conversation. “So often Trump’s ascendancy is linked to race, but what gets short shrift is that it’s about white male resentment, and it’s a white male identity movement.”

Cultural recognition is what white men want and need, argued Katz, and Republicans have figured out how to work this fact in their favor. Katz argued that since Nixon, the Republican party has been successfully exploiting the cultural need of white males for respect, and getting white men to vote against their own economic interests in the process.

Jackson Katz, Author of Man Enough and Macho Paradox

Katz discussed how Donald Trump works this political lever in extreme ways. “He’s not just a white man. He’s an aggressive bully white man. […] His masculinity is a central feature of his personality. His bully personality is a central feature of his political success.”

Katz described how, in the Republican debates, Trump attacked the other candidates’ masculinity, signaling to voters that he is the “real man” that no one can stand up to. “It works fabulously,” said Katz.

Katz noted that in conversations about which voters, demographically,  elected Trump, attention is often quickly drawn to his support from white women “What about white women?” said Katz, is often the first question. But much more significant to Trump’s win, said Katz, was his domination of his base of working class white male voters, a demographic where Trump won  72% of the vote.

Katz also pointed out that Hillary Clinton did win  the vote with college-educated white women. “White women had been voting Republican for decades,” said Katz.  “Hillary Clinton was not successful at bringing enough of them back [to the Democratic party],” said Katz, but she still brought in 2% more votes from white women with a college education than any other Democratic presidential candidate. “There  is a class gap among white women,” said Katz.

Katz went on to describe how he and other progressive male thought leaders are looking for ways to engage more men in gender equality work. “You have to speak to those white men,” he said.  Katz argued that men don’t get approached enough to have conversations on where they stand on gender equality.

Marianne Schnall closed by noting that the stakes in this election are high, and encouraging everyone to check out websites from the panel, including Whatwillittake.com which has more information about electing women. “One of the most important things we can do is vote,” said Schnall.

Related:

Praising the Deeds of Women: How Gender Equity and Reconciliation Can Change the World

Ecofeminism to the Rescue: Mary Robinson Launches New Podcast

Carnegie Endowment Identifies How to Increase Women in U.S. PoliticsRead More

Encircling Our World’s Gender Pain: Reflections of a Donor Activist

Donor Activist Emily Nielsen Jones, right, holds hands with Michele Breene, Philbert Karisa, and Mangesh Pol of her home group, during the Gender Equity and Reconciliation International retreat held in May of 2018 at the Warren Conference Center and Inn in Framingham, MA.

While #MeToo revelations continue to roil the globe, what can we all do in our own sandboxes to say #TimesUp? How can we do work in our own lives that gets at not only the more egregious forms of relational abuse, but also at all the layers of harmful gender dynamics—psychological, social, relational, institutional, and yes spiritual—which create the conditions where abuse happens?

These are questions that gripped my mind and heart, and led me to help organize and participate in two “gender reconciliation” retreats, one in Seattle and one in Boston. The retreats were led by an incredible set of facilitators who are part of a global movement called Gender Equity and Reconciliation International (GERI) that aims to heal the deeper roots of our world’s gender wounds, one circle at a time.

I don’t know how many #MeToo stories you have read, but it is in the heartbreaking details that we find evidence of the “damaging relational dynamic” (to quote speaker Beth Moore in A Letter To My Brothers) of patriarchy. The details of #MeToo stories often reveal more subtle psychological, social, and even spiritual layers of male presumption which create a harmful consolidation of power and honor around a few “great men.”  These men are granted excessive sexual and social latitude, making it hard for women to be equally honored and valued.

My gender story is not one that contains abuse, so I went into these gender equity retreats thinking I was there mostly to listen and hold other people’s stories. But just as happened in the Seattle retreat, at the Framingham retreat, I was again able to see how my own gender journey resonated with and became part of a larger tapestry of gender wound stories. 

There were tears shed over the course of the three days, but there was much laughter too, like when I shared a story in my home group that involved a ski boat, and which captured vividly one of my early life gender wounds. After I shared my ski boat story, my Rwandan brother shared about some of the gender issues he encountered growing up for 18 years in a refugee camp in Burundi.  Then my Indian brother shared about growing up as an untouchable.  We all let out a howl of laughter after they shared, noticing that if I had not gone first, I probably would not have shared a story about a ski boat! 

So how do we deal with all of the gender pain that exists in the many layers that created all the heartbreaking #MeToo stories? And how do we move forward and become better humans together?

There are many answers to this question, but one very basic way forward is to do what our human ancestors used to do when they didn’t have so many diversions: sit together in a circle. It’s almost like we have to go back to “rug time” where we sat in circles in kindergarten and nursery school. In these circles, we learned the basics of the give and take of how to be in social settings together. Sitting in a circle gives a social gathering a sacred quality that connotes we are all interconnected; we are part of a larger whole.

Sitting in a circle at the Gender Equity and Reconciliation International retreat.

When we first gathered at the beginning of the three-day retreat in Framingham, the circle of 48 felt a bit stilted and formal since it was so big. What an interesting variety we had around this circle—a potpourri of evangelical pastors from the Boston area, some earthy crunchy types from Western MA, a few Buddhists, a Muslim, a few non-religious, lots of gender equality activists, men and women of all ages and stages, two openly gay men, one openly gay woman, two people from India, and one man from Rwanda who is leading a post-genocide reconciliation ministry there. All of this human diversity in one large circle gathered to hear and feel and in some way heal one another’s gender wounds — a tall task, but one we took on with open hearts. Over the course of three days as we broke into smaller circles and shared our stories, it felt like my own heart opened as I watched other hearts opening, forming a collective heart.

“You gotta feel it to heal it.” I don’t know who said it first, but it is so true. If we don’t tend to our pain, it doesn’t vanish — it just goes underground. To heal a relational wound, you need to allow yourself to feel it. And you can’t short-circuit this healing process. It happens in its own time and in different ways. There is a role for doing this alone in a therapeutic setting, but the wisdom of the GERI approach is to feel and to heal collectively through a carefully facilitated process involving a liturgy of silence, guided meditations, small group conversations, dance, song, and games.  The retreat is also comprised of rituals choreographed to open the heart bit by bit, not to tell all of the gory details, but simply to be heard and understood. Together, we grow to understand how gender dynamics create emotional wounds, and find ways to turn our own thoughts and behaviors toward healing.

All this is done sitting in circles of deep listening and trust. Throughout our three days, our circle of 48 was subdivided into a mix and match of smaller circles to get everyone talking, moving, sharing and listening together.

Over the course of those three days, it felt like something very sacred happened. In many settings where gender issues come up, conversation quickly turns to debate, but there was not one debate or argument in these circles — only listening to understand one another’s stories. 

Women encircle men during a closing ceremony at the Gender Equity and Reconciliation Initiative retreat in Framingham, MA.

It is not easy to open one’s heart, nor does it happen instantly, but what emerges is well worth the time and trouble to get there. In a way, it felt like we healed an ancient divide, that we got to the deeper root of the problem.  The women talked about feeling heard and understood, having experienced  the kindness and good will of the men who showed up to be allies in the fight for gender equality. The men also spoke of feeling understood as they shared how they too have been harmed by patriarchy. 

As I reflect back on #WeHealTogetherNewEngland, I still carry an embodied feeling of the heart of empathy that emerged like a beautiful weave, story by story, as we sat in sacred circles together. Encircling the pain with love and understanding somehow makes the the bad stuff feel lighter and our mutual longings for a “gender healed world” more in reach.  

Below is one more glimpse of a creation from the retreat — a poem that was written and shared by the men in a closing ceremony honoring the women.

From the Men, Honoring the Women 

Before we were formed in the womb, O God,

You knew us. You knitted us 

together in our mother’s womb.


We honor you as our teachers, 

as our wives, as our daughters,

as our friends … as our mothers.


May we be re-formed together 

in love, knitted together in the strength 

of tenderness, in the power 

of self-giving, in the hope of re-birth.


You have shown us what it means

to be brave and bold, and truthful,

and righteously angry.

We thank you.

Group photo of participants in the Gender Equity and Reconciliation International retreat at the Warren Conference Center in Framingham, MA.

 

For more on how you can participate in a gender reconciliation circle to do something about the deeper roots that lead to all these #MeToo stories, check out the work of Gender Reconciliation International.

Emily Nielsen Jones is Co-Founder Imago Dei Fund. For reflections about the circle which met in Seattle, gathering 33 leaders of the men’s and women’s movements, read Deep Listening Across the Gender Line.

Related:

An Unusual Women’s Giving Circle in Boston Fuels Social Change Globally

I’m With Her: Reboarding the Feminist Train to Build Local and Global Sisterhood

Difficult, Disturbing Times at Oxfam, but Gender Equality Mission EnduresRead More

That’s Harassment: Avin and Schwimmer Help Us Figure it Out

Screenshot from a scene in “The Co-Worker,” one of six short films directed by Sigal Avin.

There’s the philanthropy that happens when people invest money to promote social change, and then there’s the philanthropy that happens when people take their money and their talent, and employ them in a way that addresses a social problem. Celebrities, particularly multi-talented and highly educated ones, have a unique capacity to combine their financial capital, talent, and public stature in order to push for needed social change.

That appears to be part of what happened when Israeli-American filmmaker Sigal Avin teamed up with several feature actors including David Schwimmer, Cynthia Nixon and Bobby Cannavale, to film a series of six short films called, “That’s Harassment.”  In each of these three to six minute cinéma verité shorts, the viewer is positioned as a cringing voyeur while scenes of sexual harassment unfold. Since debuting in the spring of 2017, these films have been adapted into 30 second public service announcements that are getting wide visibility.

Schwimmer, along with Milk Studios co-founder Mazdack Rassi, produced the series, and the former “Friends” star has been instrumental in promoting the films and getting them widely seen. The shorts are on Facebook, YouTube, Amazon and other platforms, and excerpts are being showing in New York City cabs, and as public service announcements with links to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) and the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC). The films are designed to help employers combat harassment, and encourage victims and bystanders to recognize it and speak out. RAINN and the NWLC have partnered with “That’s Harassment” to compile resource and discussion guides, and the list, “10 Ways Your Company Can Help Prevent Harassment in the Workplace.”

In one film, Schwimmer plays a lawyer who forces himself on a recent hire played by Zazie Beetz. It’s clear that he is abusing their power differential and harassing her, and yet he is not a menacing caricature. He is not violent and doesn’t make any threats. Once rebuffed, he is highly invested in maintaining a nice guy persona, asking “Are we good?” and wanting a final hug to demonstrate that everything is okay between him and his victim. The Schwimmer character tries to pressure an employee into sexual favors, but wants to be reassured that his behavior is acceptable, and that he won’t suffer any consequences for it.

The other films detail various forms of male-female harassment: a brusque doctor fondles his patient, a bartender verbally and physically harasses a new waitress under the guise of letting her know what pigs men can be, a photographer degrades a young model by asking her to touch herself suggestively as he shoots stills of her, a famous actor exposes himself to a star-struck wardrobe person, and a veteran politician comes onto a younger journalist interviewing him.

“All of the stories are based on real incidents,” says Avin in an interview she and Schwimmer gave to Build Series NYC about the project. When she was a young playwright, Avin says an established actor exposed himself to her backstage during a rehearsal. Schwimmer shares that once the “That’s Harassment” project was underway, his mother revealed that she’d been harassed by a doctor. Schwimmer notes that the majority of the crew working on the shorts were female, “Unsolicited, every single woman came forward and said this reminds me of what happened to me. Everyone had an experience.”

Avin based “That’s Harassment” on a similar series that she’d made in Israel, and called on Schwimmer to help get the U.S. versions made and distributed. She says that her motivation in making the films was that while there was a lot of talk about sexual harassment, “You never got to see it.” Her approach was single-take scenes of several minutes where the viewer is “like a bug on the wall.”

The U.S. versions rolled out in the spring of 2017, but in the wake of the high-profile sexual harassment and abuse scandals that roiled the entertainment and other industries in the fall of 2017, Schwimmer and Avin sought a wider audience for them, and got RAINN and NWLC involved. “That’s Harassment” has also been covered by various mainstream media outlets including Cosmopolitan, Good Morning America and USA Today.

What makes the films so effective is that the perpetrators’ behavior is abusive, yet familiar. The victims don’t dissolve in a puddle of tears, nor do they angrily confront their harassers, all of whom are in positions of power over them. The women appear confused, embarrassed and uncomfortable, deflecting the unwelcome advances and comments, and sometimes laughing or shrugging off the harassing behavior or remarks.

The bartender, actor, and lawyer characters want to be “good guys” who compliment women and do them favors, but what the films show is that the nicest thing they could do would be to respect their female colleagues and let them do their jobs. The doctor, politician and photographer characters don’t play the helpful nice guy card; instead, they emphasize their experience and authority. You can almost see the gears turning in the victims’ heads: what is going on here? Is this normal? How do I get this to end without a scene or future reprisals?

The films are useful in provoking discussion about sexual harassment, and as tools for employers to use. This can be tricky — employers have a legal and moral imperative to combat sexual harassment, yet didactic and heavy-handed training sessions and amateurish videos tend to provoke more eye-rolling than actual change. For this reason, having a professional like Avin script and direct the films, and use working Hollywood actors, goes a long way in making the scenarios believable, and something that should be taken seriously.

In the current climate surrounding harassment, many men wonder what their role should be. Most would prefer not to talk about it all. It’s easier not to get involved, rationalizing that if one is not a perpetrator, then it’s best to keep one’s head down. There are costs—including threats to one’s livelihood and social ostracization—for speaking up when harassment takes place. Moreover, some men fear that their involvement might be unwanted, or seen as patronizing by women. Finally, many men, and women, are still grappling with what constitutes sexual harassment. The films do not solve these thorny questions, but they certainly start the conversation, and can lead to some concrete and specific ways to stop harassment in the workplace, as indicated by RAINN and NWLC.

Schwimmer and co-producer Mazdack Rassi’s contribution to the project, supporting Avin in getting the films made (and seen), is a good model for other men to follow in terms of being allies to women in the fight for gender equality.

Related:

What Role Can Funders Play in Ending Sexual Abuse of Aid Workers?

Heavy Hitters Collaborate on New Blueprint for Women’s Funds to Lead Social Change

Confidence is Key: Female Filmmakers Discuss How to Get Financing

#MeToo and the Power Shift Women’s Funds Helped CreateRead More