The rates of sexual harassment in medicine exceed all other fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). When women in these workplaces speak of sexism or sexual harassment, they are often confronted by the defense of the ‘good guy’: ‘He didn’t mean anything by it. He’s a good guy.” This answer minimizes, apologizes, or deflects a man’s sexist or intimidating behavior by appealing to the usefulness of this commonly used phrase. By calling someone a “good guy” as an explainable defense, Men and medical institutions affirm the offender’s moral character, imply his innocence, and show allegiance to him, but the defense of the “good man” has two salient functions: to gaslight women and empower the offender.
We need to shift a culture in the workplace from one that protects and perpetuates sexism and misogyny to one that stands out to men as authentic allies. There are five ways to take back the term “good guys.” Improve your situational awareness first. Second, control your impulse to gaslight others. Third, hold other men accountable. Fourth, strengthen positive behaviour. 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 group of women, he joked out loud, “I have to be careful or else this could be a #MeToo moment.” He pointed to the pelvic mannequins that were in the open leg position. They served as training simulators for cervical, uterine and ovarian examinations. He smiled at the students and gestured to the plastic models, “Don’t worry, you don’t have to do this position.” Later, a male supervisor, who was told that the anatomy professor’s demeanor, describing 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 female doctor proposed a policy related to patient safety and the challenges of hospital crowds. She presented data and suggested language for the commission’s statement. Her male colleague interrupted her halfway through the presentation, talked over her and appropriated the conversation. He called her naive, inexperienced and an ineffective communicator, despite her 10 years of practical experience. Six colleagues witnessed the heated verbal exchange, including his personal attacks. They remained silent. The meeting ended and the committee chairman pulled her aside: ‘Don’t take it personally. Loosen him up a bit. I know he didn’t mean it. He’s a good guy.”
These two vignettes are composed, based on real stories, that illustrate a common strategy to empower and protect perpetrators of sexism and sexual harassment. The rates of sexual harassment in medicine exceed all other fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine (STEMM). While women make up the majority of the healthcare workforce, most healthcare leaders are men. The academic culture of medicine in particular has historically been tolerant of sexual harassment and prejudice perpetuated by men. More so, the atmosphere of repercussion and retaliation makes it challenging for women to speak out. Research suggests that men do not condone sexist behavior, but at the same time they are reluctant to confront other men. Reasons include fear of the wimp punishment (being seen as wimpy or weak by other men) or of being bro code. This implicit rule of conduct governs many male-male relationships, both personal and professional, and perpetuates a sexist culture in the workplace, forcing men to support other men — including their bad behavior — at all costs.
We define “good man” defense as minimizing, excusing, or distracting a man’s sexist or intimidating behavior by invoking the usefulness of this commonly used phrase. By calling someone a “good guy” as an explicable defense, men and medical institutions affirm the offender’s moral character, imply his innocence, and show allegiance to him. The defense of the “good man” has two notable functions: gaslighting women and empowering the culprit.
When a woman is disturbed, fired, feels incompetent, sexually harassed, and then decides to share her experiences, men — more often than women — respond with invalid statements. In our experience, these could be “I’m sure he didn’t mean anything by that,” “Oh, but he’s got daughters,” “Oh, but he mentors women all the time,” “He flirts with everyone,” and “It it’s okay; you’re too sensitive.” Men often get harassed by statements like, “He doesn’t know any better” or “When he was training, it was different.” Referring to a man’s character or advanced age as a get out of jail card robs the chance to help him overcome a blind spot in his leadership.
Each of these often related feelings challenges the legitimacy of the woman’s experience. Bad as these phrases are, they actually pale in comparison to “He’s a good guy.” This expression inherently diverts the conversation to the character of the offender, implying that a good man in other contexts may have meant only 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 perpetrator accountable.
A second problem with the “good man” defense is that it prevents the perpetrator from being held accountable, while perpetuating a misogynistic culture in which women feel devalued and insecure. Motivations for rejecting a coworker’s behavior include unwillingness to have difficult conversations with repeat offenders, discomfort at recognizing that a good coworker has behaved inappropriately or illegally, fear of violating sexist norms in the workplace, or even fear . Declaring this behavior can make men self-conscious about their own previous embarrassing or inappropriate behavior. Whatever the motivation, hiring bad actors perpetuates a toxic culture of harassment.
The ‘good guy’ defense is common in medicine, but it’s not the only field with this problem. An investigation into engaging perpetrators of sexual harassment in various organizations discovered ‘networks of complicity’. In other words, perpetrators surround themselves with networks of colleagues who downplay and excuse their behavior. In public, we’ve seen the “good guy” defenses used to excuse sexism and sexually harassing behavior by men in the movie industry, professional sports, and politics. Yet the medical profession has inadvertently cultivated and amplified the disease “good guy” defense through a reverence for the history and tradition of medicine, long dominated by men. Even the strongest, bravest, most resilient women can stop talking when they see these fake “good guys” being systematically protected.
We can do better. We need to shift a culture in the workplace from one that protects and perpetuates sexism and misogyny to one that stands out to men as authentic allies. Male leaders should set the example for younger generations of leaders. They can start by validating women’s experiences and following this up by removing “good guy” as their reflex defense. Here are five ways we can take back the term “good guys”:
Improve your situational awareness.
Learn how to identify sexist behavior, more specifically harassment. Research into reducing the bystander effect shows that noticing and correctly labeling the behavior is an important first step. Men, in particular, can consciously build gender intelligence by reading the data and learning through rigorously executed 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 at. the target of this behavior when you witness it. This confirms her experience. For example, I noticed your manager rejected you and the expertise of the other women in the meeting. It feels sexist to me. Am I reading this right?
Check your own impulse to gaslight.
The next time a female coworker reports a sexist or intimidating encounter, make sure nothing you say can make her believe she’s misinterpreting the perpetrator’s behavior or pushing 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 work with you to address it? These responses provide support and allow you to gather more information about the incident.
Hold other men accountable.
Actively confronting other men for sexism, bias, harassment and all sorts of inappropriate behavior can be the hardest part of male alliance. But it is essential to eliminate the “good man” defenses. Don’t tell the target of harassment or misogyny that the perpetrator is a “good guy.” Discuss the behavior with the man in question. We call this the front of care, Contextualizing confrontation as an act of caring on the part of a friend or colleague. To attempt: That comment was inappropriate and demeaning. I found it offensive and it was clearly offensive to our female 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 it up and be more respectful.
Use positive reinforcement.
Empowering people — especially men — for desirable behavior in the workplace (for example, disrupting sexism and harassment and holding others accountable) is a powerful motivator. To attempt: I really appreciated when you talked about our colleague’s inappropriate and insulting joke. Everyone saw what you did and it had a positive effect on the team. Reinforcement can, of course, have the added value of influencing others when done in public. For example, Thank you for saying that. I also felt uncomfortable with that comment and I agree that this is just not what we are doing here.
Integrate these conversations into your organization’s culture.
Where the “good guy” defense prevails, involve 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. Add vignettes or examples of the “good guy” defense to training programs. Leaders across the organization need regular knowledge and updates of best practices to better handle these situations. Inclusion in highly visible programs demonstrates a commitment to improving workplace culture.
Now is the time to call on 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 to enable and protect the status quo, we should insist that it be used as an ambitious target for men working with women to create a respectful, dignified and inclusive workplace.