Change the Script: Creating the Standard for Cross-Gender Interactions

By DJ Gaughan, PHD

“The Times, They are a-Changin’…” B. Dylan

Societal expectations for appropriate male-female interactions are continually evolving. This can be seen clearly in how these relationships are presented over the decades on film.

The Netflix “Mad Men” series has been praised for its accurate portrayal of a late 50s to early 60s Madison Avenue advertising firm. The women are depicted sympathetically as victims in these scripts, which were written from a 21st Century perspective.

By contrast, a contemporaneous depiction of the same subject, the 1959 movie “The Best of Everything” is pseudo-sympathetic to the women in the office, but plays the material in a titillating manner with little real regard for the fates of the female characters. The movie poster taglines include: “Here’s to the men … Bless their clean-cut faces and dirty little minds!” And, “These are the girls who want the best of everything, but often settle for less.”

Particularly cringe-worthy is a scene from the movie where the secretarial pool manager, played by Joan Crawford, returns from an extended leave. She asks her boss, the firm’s owner, if he is still pinching the young girls’ bottoms, to which he replied, “Of course I am. They expect it.” Both Joan and her boss find this terribly funny.

No longer. Women today are reaching a critical mass in asserting themselves against sexual harassment and sexual assault. Long overdue seismic social changes are occurring rapidly. It is not only women but also men who will be instrumental in creating the new norms for interactions across genders.

How can men best take part in transforming a worldwide culture that has been historically insensitive and complicit in the mistreatment of women? Men can begin by questioning everything that they think they know about how they relate to women.

There is a widespread societal agreement in principle on what comprises extreme sexually inappropriate behavior. Nonetheless, even codified criminal conduct can be open to interpretation by judge or jury. How much more difficult is it, then, to determine what is acceptable in everyday interactions with the opposite sex?

A young executive in her late 20s very recently became the first woman promoted to an elite project team in her company, which consisted of men in their mid-30s to early 60s. During lunch meetings, frequent sexualized comments from the men about the waitresses and women sitting at other tables were the norm. When she came to me, she said, “I guess I should be flattered that they treat me like one of the boys.”

When she addressed this with the team leader, she reported he was genuinely caught off-guard and had not given any prior thought about the inappropriateness of her male co-workers’ statements. Both embarrassed and remorseful, he apologized and addressed the situation with the team.

Men should be encouraged to have open conversations with their wives or significant others and trusted and insightful friends on this topic. Like the young executive team leader, be open to different opinions and the observations of others that may not be like your own and may even surprise you.

Men, if you have children, strive to be a good role model for them in the ways you treat women. Encourage both your girls and your boys to ask questions about how they should treat peers of the opposite sex and how they should expect to be treated. Use current events, such as the #MeToo movement on social media, as a starting point for discussions at an age-appropriate level.

Ask your kids what they think before handing them a pat answer. Sometimes you won’t have a good answer. Tell them you don’t know for sure. Try to find an answer together that seems right for both of you. Encourage empathy by having them put themselves in the place of the other person or persons in a difficult situation.

Cultures most often change slowly, but with men and women working together, it’s possible for a culture to change in a single generation.

A licensed psychologist, Dr. Gaughan has been helping children, adolescents, and adults in Arizona for over 30 years. He offers individual, family and couples therapy, and groups for children and teens coping with their parents’ divorce. He also provides court-ordered services, interventions and evaluations.

Dr. Gaughan can be reached by email:, or by phone: 602-956-3237

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