In 1998, I was seven years old, I firmly believed that once you turned 18 you were given a manual titled “How to be an Adult: The All-Inclusive Answer Book for Any Situation.” To the best of my knowledge marriage was forever and the President was the smartest man in the world. During this same year, the Monica Lewinsky scandal broke. Lewinsky, then 24 years old, had an “inappropriate sexual relationship” with her boss, Bill Clinton (former President of the United States), and her entire personal life was exposed online. For the next decade following the scandal, Lewinsky was publicly silenced by an overwhelming wave of judgment and assumptions, thanks in large part to the dawn of the Internet. Recently she spoke at TED giving a talk titled “The Price of Shame” to discuss these incidences.
As a twenty-something professional, the beginning of your career is a time to build a technical skill set, a strong network and a positive reputation. As a woman at work (especially if the work place is mostly people in their 20s and heavily male dominated), it is easy to see work as a potential dating pool. On many occasions, while the corporate booze is free flowing, I have seen colleagues take advantage of their surroundings and wake up the next day to regret choices they made the night before. While their “casual encounters” with co-workers may only come with a headache and some awkward moments in the workplace, some women, like Lewinsky, face devastating consequences that last longer than a few moments.
Although there is a span of two decades between the time Lewinsky and I were 24, we, like many young middle class women, have a lot in common. We are ambitious, privileged, and college-educated. It feels like one of the biggest difference between us is the thickness of the shoulder pads in our suit jackets. However unlike Lewinsky in 1998, I have information constantly at my fingertips with a swipe and tap.
In the news and on social media, gender equality is a hot topic, but it can be controversial and up for interpretation. In my experience, talking to male peers at work about gender equality has resulted in two responses, a blank stare or the question “Isn’t that sexist?” It is difficult for twenty-something men to understand institutional sexism because from the time they were born there have been programs to combat it.
It is easy for me to be sympathetic to the 1998 Lewinsky, understanding that she was trying to establish herself as professional, in the White House, and sleeping with her boss, maybe just for love, maybe for the power and promotion potential. At the time that was a choice she made and later regretted. But the lesson the media portrays is that she was real life 90s version of Hester Prynne, complete with a red “A.” Today, the same as in the 1600s and in 1998, the blame, followed by shame and humiliation falls on young women caught in a romantic situation with a married man.
Lewinsky’s story should not just be a cautionary tale of bad choices, infidelity, and extreme public access to private and personal information. Her TED Talk discusses the theory of minority influence, which says that even in small numbers when there is consistency, over time change can and will happen. Changing the way women in the work force are seen when this kind of incident happens can be done in a multitude of steps including the following:
- Do not get involved, unless a work affair is affecting your own work (in which you could notify Human Resources), don’t gossip about other women and men. Allow co-worker’s private lives to remain private.
- Take into account that both parties are responsible and have made this choice as TWO consenting adults.
- Hold yourself to a higher standard. Yes, people find love at work, but keep firm work/life boundaries. And even if you have to learn the hard way, it’s never too late to implement them.
Though my copy of “How to be an Adult: The All-Inclusive Answer Book for Any Situation” never magically appeared on my 18th birthday, I definitely have a strong base to start with by watching my parents and their friends. I’ve learned that making mistakes is a part of growing up and learning from it transforms you into an adult. You don’t have to make every mistake, it’s good to learn from the trailblazers that have gone before us, but when it happens it’s about growing, moving forward, and continuing on your journey.