Editor’s Note: Kara Alaimo, an associate professor of public relations at Hofstra University, is the author of “Pitch, Tweet, or Engage on the Street: How to Practice Global Public Relations and Strategic Communication.” She was spokeswoman for international affairs in the Treasury Department during the Obama administration. Follow her on Twitter @karaalaimo. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. View more opinion at CNN.
As a growing number of women have come forward to accuse New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo of sexual harassment, unwanted touching and inappropriate behavior, he is facing mounting pressure from members of his own party – including Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York – to resign.
Cuomo also faces a serious scandal involving allegations that his administration misreported nursing home deaths. It’s a remarkably swift fall from grace for a politician who was just recently seen as one of the nation’s strongest managers of the Covid-19 pandemic.
But Cuomo didn’t belong in office even before these allegations came to light, given that he is widely known to be a bully. Before the governor was last reelected, New York City public advocate Jumaane Williams, who lost his bid for lieutenant governor in 2018, described Cuomo’s aggressive behavior as “kind of an open secret,” while Cynthia Nixon, who ran against Cuomo in the Democratic primary, said, “We’ve all seen it: Andrew the bully. He bullies other elected officials. He bullies anyone who criticizes him.”
Bosses who foster cultures of fear and set expectations for punishing schedules create workplaces that are hostile to women – which also means it’s less likely that women’s views and issues will be well-represented in their offices. New Yorkers should have a hard think about their role in repeatedly reelecting a man whose overly aggressive behavior was well documented before these latest claims came to light. And all of us need to radically reassess the standards to which we hold our leaders.
I didn’t vote for Cuomo in the 2018 Democratic primary because I was concerned about his management style. Cuomo has a history of launching personal attacks against people who cross him. In 2018, for example, when public radio reporter Karen DeWitt confronted Cuomo about allegations of sexual harassment against a member of his administration and asked what changes he might consider to his office’s policies, Cuomo criticized DeWitt for what he described as a “disservice to women” by doing her job as a journalist and asking him the question. And he certainly doesn’t appear to have changed. Just last month, New York Assemblyman Ron Kim said Cuomo called him while Kim was bathing his children and threatened to “destroy” him if he didn’t support Cuomo during the nursing home scandal. Cuomo’s adviser denied that the governor threatened to destroy Kim.
The governor has also been widely described by staffers as creating a stressful culture and demanding long hours. Friday, amongst many disturbing allegations, The New York Times reported that several of his aides “recalled having to cut short vacations or miss their children’s birthday parties for seemingly minor tasks such as transcribing television interviews with local politicians in other states whom Mr. Cuomo feared could someday become political rivals.” The office denied the allegations.
When bosses expect this kind of overwork, they by definition create environments that are unfair to women – especially mothers. This is because, as I have previously written, working women on average take on far more responsibility for housework and childcare than working men, and therefore can’t put in the same kinds of long hours in their jobs.
And, of course, the harder it is for women to work in an administration, the harder it is for women’s perspectives to be represented in it. This is why, irrespective of the latest allegations against Cuomo, it has long been clear that he is no friend to women and has no place in office.
But Cuomo is far from the only leader who is guilty of creating a workplace culture that is unwelcoming to women. Business and political leaders should be examining whether they are responsible for inculcating environments that exclude women – and we as voters, consumers and shareholders need to stop tolerating these qualities in our leaders.
Take former President Barack Obama (I served as a Treasury spokesperson in his administration). Obama has a reputation for being a friend to women and there has never been a whiff of sexual scandal surrounding him. But he learned that the tendency for other men on his senior staff to shout, curse, interrupt and take credit for other people’s ideas during policy discussions left senior women in his White House “feeling diminished, ignored, and increasingly reluctant to voice their opinions,” he wrote in his 2020 autobiography “A Promised Land.”
He responded by taking responsibility. Obama wrote that hearing this “forced me to look in the mirror and ask myself how much my own inclination toward machismo – my tolerance for a certain towel-snapping atmosphere in meetings, the enjoyment I took in a good verbal jousting – may have contributed to their discomfort.”
Obama deserves enormous credit for being receptive to feedback and examining the subconscious, unintended ways in which he was contributing to a workplace that was difficult for women. It’s long past time for other leaders to follow his example. And if all of us stopped voting for bullies and purchasing products from companies that don’t foster inclusive workplaces, the world would be a far friendlier place for women.
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It is not news that Gov. Cuomo is a bully. While there is no excuse for his behavior, New Yorkers also bear some responsibility for repeatedly choosing to elevate him to power. Now, it’s time for all of us to reevaluate the values we want our leaders to embody and withdraw support for the kinds of men who – intentionally or unintentionally – hold women back.