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Susan Estrich: The Silent Backlash to Beware Of

I don't want to see the next name in the headlines for sexual misconduct. I know too many of them.

I believe the women. Some companies are conducting internal checks, and some are not, because they don't want to get caught up in all this.

And because while it's true that sexual harassment is a real problem, there are also questions of degree. An 89-year-old President George H.W. Bush, in a wheelchair, accused of sexual assault? 

The reason I write this is not to discredit women. I write all this because if people I'm talking to feel this way then other people — people who would never talk to a feminist such as myself — must feel it even more strongly.

So beware. Amidst the apologies, amidst the corporate commitments, amidst the sense of empowerment that many women rightly feel — the kind that comes with standing up and going beyond being a victim — pause to observe that the ingredients for a real backlash are all lined up. 

I'm not suggesting for a minute that men are out there ready to harass women as vengeance, or to punish those who spoke out. Not at all. The power dynamic has shifted.

Everyone felt the shaking, as we say in California. Duck, cover and hope the glass won't hit you. That's what it's been like, figuratively speaking. No one wants to be next.

"Am I allowed to say a woman is attractive?" a male friend asked me, seriously and respectfully. "Is the woman a co-worker?" I asked.

She was. (Whom else do most of us see during the day?) I suggested he not do that, not right now. Ridiculous, I agree, but good advice, you have to admit.

So I'm not worried about workplace revenge, at least not in that obvious way. I think most workplaces are in for some changes: more time-outs for reflecting; a little more care about the jokes people tell; about the asides; about physical contact. None of that is necessarily a bad thing.

That's what happened, at least for 10 minutes or so, after Anita Hill captivated the nation.

It's the silent backlash I worry about: It's not what people are going to do, but what they aren't going to do.

Who wants to mentor the attractive young women associates? Who wants to travel with the junior "girl"? Who wants to spend weeks in hotels on business trips with the blonde millennials? 

There was a time when you had too many men volunteering for those assignments, some of them for all the wrong reasons. But I worry that going forward, you're not going to find as many volunteers as are needed.

Because as much as Anita Hill captivated the nation and spurred many women to speak out, her testimony did not fundamentally change the structure of power in this country. There is a reason — not simply our superior judgment — that every single one of those accused in the current round of accusations has been a man. Every one.

It is not simply about gender differences. It is, at its core, about who has power. It is the reason that these problems are so stubborn: Challenging the powerful to behave differently is difficult, convincing them to share power even more so. 

Every study comes to the same conclusion about what women need to do, what we need to have. We need mentors. We need people with more power than we have to promote and advise us.

That is what men have had for centuries. It is what the "old boys' network" is all about. 

And where will young women find them? First, of course, from the ranks of successful women, but there aren't enough powerful women to go along; that's the problem. (And that's not to mention those women headed to a special place in the afterworld for not recognizing any responsibility to help other women.)

The second place we women find mentors is from the ranks of successful men who are willing to have meals with us and travel with us and have confidential conversations with us; who trust us to learn and not to destroy. 

There is only one way to make sure that this moment does not lead to a silent backlash that takes opportunities from women rather than opening doors. Count. Count how many women are hired and how many are promoted and how many leave.

Do it on a regular basis. No quotas. Just a mirror. Sometimes seeing is all you need.

Susan Estrich is a best-selling author, the Robert Kingsley Professor of Law and Political Science at the USC Law Center and was campaign manager for 1988 Democratic presidential nominee Michael Dukakis. Click here to contact her or click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are her own.

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