The most remarkable video clip to emerge from the recent G8 Summit of world leaders was not the one revealing that the President of the United States knows how to use the “s” word. That clip was hardly worth the thirty seconds it took to watch it. No, the real shocker is a 5-second clip showing President Bush walking up to German Chancellor Angela Merkel from behind and surprising her with an impromptu — and obviously unwelcome — back rub.
This is not about politics, but rather, professional conduct. Just about any CEO, manager, supervisor or human being who has been in the workplace for the last 30 years knows that you do not touch other people unless you are saving them from falling down steps, giving them CPR, or pushing them away from a speeding train. When the other person is of the opposite sex, additional care is necessary to be sure that there really is a speeding train coming, lest the question of impending harm wind up being a point of argument for the closing arguments in court. Even sympathetic hugs are going the way of back rubs at work.
One of the facts of life that this incident reveals, however, is that prominent status and achievement of high office does not necessarily mean that a woman is immune from the kinds of sexist slights and put-downs that used to be commonplace, and that still obviously occur too often. As a woman university president, I know the traps that still exist even at this level; the higher women go at work, the closer we get to the glass ceiling where we can see what’s really going on across that great divide. There are still guys over there who resent our presence at the table, who find overt and insidious ways to communicate their lack of respect, the subtle power plays that tell women to stay in their place. Even at high status levels, women still encounter actions, words, policies and attitudes that are as sexist as the discrimination faced by women at other levels in the workplace.
Chancellor Merkel is the first woman ever elected to Germany’s highest office, and yet, the videotape shows her being treated like somebody’s Gal Friday from the middle of the 20th century. The ambush back rub signals that she is easy prey, not really a leader on equal terms with the others at the table.
I realize that some people might argue that President Bush’s presumption of familiarity with Chancellor Merkel sends a different message, perhaps one of welcome into the fraternity where such gestures are meant as friendly. But women’s entrance into the old boys’ clubs does not mean that women should have to adapt to the boys’ rituals. Rather, true equality demands an entirely new vocabulary of language and gesture, including great care and respect with personal space. Public leaders need to be exemplary role models for the appropriate modes of communication and relationship among women and men in the workplace.