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Stop Protecting “Good Guys”

Rates of sexual harassment in medicine outpace all other science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) fields. When women speak up about sexism or sexual harassment in these workplaces, they’re often met with the “good guy” defense: “He didn’t mean anything by it. He’s a good guy.” This response minimizes, excuses, or deflects the sexist or harassing behavior of a man by appealing to the utility of this commonly used phrase. In calling someone a “good guy” as an explain-away defense, men and medical institutions are offering an endorsement of the offender’s moral character, suggesting his innocence, and signaling an allegiance to him. But the “good guy” defense serves two salient functions: to gaslight women and to enable the offender.

We need to shift workplace cultures from one that protects and perpetuates sexism and misogyny to one that is notable for men as authentic allies. There are five ways to take back the term “good guys.” First, improve your situational awareness. Second, check your impulse to gaslight others. Third, hold other men accountable. Fourth, reinforce positive behavior. Finally, integrate conversations about the “good guy” defense into your organization’s culture.

The anatomy professor scanned the room of medical students and college women. Based on the majority women group, he joked aloud, “I should be careful or this could be a #MeToo moment.” He pointed to the pelvis mannequins positioned in the open leg position. They served as training simulators for the cervix, uterus, and ovary examinations. He smiled at the undergraduates and motioned to the plastic models: “Don’t worry, you won’t have to do this position.” Later, a male supervisor, who was told of the anatomy professor’s behavior, described him as a decades-long friend, saying: “Oh, he didn’t mean anything by that. He’s a good guy.”

At a national committee meeting, a woman physician proposed a policy on patient safety and the challenges of hospital crowding. She presented data and suggested language for the committee’s statement. Her male colleague interrupted her mid-presentation, talked over her, and usurped the conversation. He called her naïve, inexperienced, and an ineffective communicator, despite her 10 years of practice expertise. Six colleagues witnessed the heated verbal exchange, including his personal attacks. They remained silent. The meeting ended, and the committee chair pulled her aside: “Don’t take it personally. Cut him some slack. I know he didn’t mean it. He’s a good guy.”

These two vignettes are composites, based on real accounts, that illustrate a common strategy for enabling and protecting perpetrators of sexism and sexual harassment. Rates of sexual harassment in medicine outpace all other science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine (STEMM) fields. Although women comprise the majority of the healthcare workforce, the majority of healthcare leaders are men. The academic medicine culture in particular is historically permissive of sexual harassment and bias perpetuated by men. More so, the atmosphere of repercussion and retaliation makes it challenging for women to speak up. Research suggests that men do not condone sexist behavior, but at the same time, they are reluctant to confront other men. Reasons include a fear of the wimp penalty (being seen as a wimp or weak by other men) or of violating the bro code. This implicit rule of behavior governs many man-man relationships, both personal and professional, and perpetuates a sexist workplace culture, compelling men to support other men — including their bad behavior — at all costs.

We define the “good guy” defense as minimizing, excusing, or deflecting the sexist or harassing behavior of a man by appealing to the utility of this commonly used phrase. In calling someone a “good guy” as an explain-away defense, men and medical institutions are offering an endorsement of the offender’s moral character, suggesting his innocence, and signaling an allegiance to him. The “good guy” defense serves two salient functions: to gaslight women and to enable the offender.

When a woman is interrupted, dismissed, made to feel incompetent, sexually harassed, and subsequently decides to share her experiences, it is too often that men — more often than women — respond with invalidating statements. In our experience, these may include, “I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by that,” “Oh, but he has daughters,” “Oh, but he mentors women all the time,” “He flirts with everyone,” and “It’s not a big deal; you’re being too sensitive.” Men often are given a pass on harassing behavior with statements like, “He doesn’t know any better,” or “Things were different when he was in training.” Referring to a man’s character or older age as a get out of jail free card robs the opportunity to help him overcome a blind spot in his leadership.

Each of these commonly related sentiments challenge the legitimacy of the woman’s experience. As bad as these phrases are, they actually pale in comparison to “He’s a good guy.” This phrase inherently deflects the conversation to the perpetrator’s character, implying that a good man in other contexts could only have intended good behavior in this particular situation. Vouching for a man’s goodness also disarms the victim and undermines a woman’s ability to hold the harasser accountable.

A second problem with the “good guy” defense is that it prevents accountability for the offender, while perpetuating a misogynistic culture in which women feel devalued and unsafe. Motivations for dismissing a colleague’s behavior include reluctance to have difficult conversations with repeat offenders, discomfort acknowledging that a good colleague has behaved inappropriately or illegally, fear of violating sexist workplace norms, or even anxiety. Calling out this behavior may make men self-conscious about their own previous embarrassing or improper conduct. Whatever the motivation, enabling bad actors perpetuates a toxic culture of harassment.

The “good guy” defense is common in medicine, but it is not the only field with this problem. A study on enabling perpetrators of sexual harassment across diverse organizations discovered “networks of complicity.” In other words, perpetrators surround themselves with networks of colleagues who minimize and excuse their behavior. Publicly, we have seen the “good guy” defense used to excuse sexism and sexually harassing behavior of men in the film industry, professional sports, and politics. Still, the medical profession has inadvertently cultivated and amplified thegood guy” defense through a reverence for the history and tradition of medicine, long dominated by men. Even the strongest, bravest, most resilient women may stop speaking up when they see these faux “good guys” systematically protected.

We can do better. We need to shift workplace cultures from one that protects and perpetuates sexism and misogyny to one that is notable for men as authentic allies. Male leaders should set the example for younger generations of leaders. They can start by validating women’s experiences and follow this up by removing “good guy” as their knee-jerk defense. Here are five ways we can begin to take back the term “good guys”:

Improve your situational awareness.

Learn how to identify sexist behavior — more specifically, harassment. Research on mitigating the bystander effect reveals that noticing and correctly labeling the behavior is a key first step. Men, in particular, can deliberately build gender intelligence by reading and learning the data through rigorously conducted reports, such as McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace 2021 and the Sexual Harassment of Women National Academies of Sciences Engineering and Medicine 2018 report. Start by checking in with the target of this behavior when you witness it. This validates her experience. For example, I noticed that your manager dismissed you and the other women’s expertise in the meeting. It feels sexist to me. Am I reading this right?

Check your own impulse to gaslight.

The next time a woman colleague reports a sexist or harassing encounter, be sure that nothing you say might lead her to believe she’s misreading the perpetrator’s behavior or blowing it out of proportion. Try something like: I believe you. From what you’ve described, that behavior doesn’t sound appropriate. Can you tell me more, and can I team up with you to address it? These responses offer support while allowing you to gather more information about the occurrence.

Hold other men accountable.

Active confrontation of other men for sexism, bias, harassment, and all manner of inappropriate behavior may be the toughest part of male allyship. But it is essential to eliminating the “good guy” defense. Don’t tell the target of harassment or misogyny that the perpetrator is a “good guy.” Address the behavior with the man in question. We call this the carefrontation, contextualizing confrontation as an act of caring on the part of a friend or colleague. Try: That comment was inappropriate and demeaning. I found it offensive and it was clearly offensive to our women colleagues. I know you can do better. Alternatively, you could say, You and I go way back and we’re friends. I heard what you said/what you did. We don’t do that here. You need to make amends and be more respectful.

Use positive reinforcement.

Reinforcing people — especially men — for desired workplace behaviors (e.g., disrupting sexism and harassment and holding others accountable) is a powerful motivator. Try: I really appreciated it when you spoke up about our coworker’s inappropriate and offensive joke. Everyone saw what you did and it had a positive effect on the team. Of course, reinforcement can have the added value of influencing others when done in public. For instance, Thank you for saying that. I was also uncomfortable with that comment and I agree that’s just not what we do here.

Integrate these conversations into your organization’s culture.

Where the “good guy” defense is prevalent, engage team members in discussions about the impact this phrase has on people. Encourage others to share their experiences with the “good guy” defense and why we should drop it. Include vignettes or examples of the “good guy” defense at training programs. Leaders throughout an organization need exposure and best practice refreshers regularly, so they can better handle these situations. Inclusion in high-visibility programs demonstrates a commitment to improving workplace culture.

The time is now to ask leaders, managers, and bystanders to stand up and end the “good guy” defense. It is an ethical and professional responsibility to do so. It’s time to take back the term “good guy.” Rather than a tool for enabling and protecting the status quo, we should insist it be used as an aspirational target for men collaborating with women to create a respectful, dignified, and inclusive workplace.

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