Heather McCauley: Leaders, be the change.
Heather McCauley is a Harvard-trained social epidemiologist and assistant professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies in the College of Social Science. She is also the chair of the MSU Sexual Violence Advisory Committee and a member of the Research Consortium on Gender-based Violence at MSU.
I shivered in the cool fall air, pulling my jacket closed as I walked laps around the track that lined the football field. It was a Friday night in 2014. The crowd roared as the hometown favorite, Woodland Hills High School, scored a touchdown.
I raised my fist in the air and let out a jubilant ‘whoop,’ joining this Western Pennsylvania community in their celebration. I looked to the sidelines, cracking a smile. My research team at University of Pittsburgh, where I was a faculty member at the time in the Departments of Pediatrics and Psychiatry, had spent months in this community, working alongside these coaches and student-athletes.
We had attended practice. Spent time with their families. And because we were invested in this community, I knew that their success on the football field was only one part of their collective identity.
Earlier that week, I sat in their locker room, just steps away from the field. I was there that day to facilitate a conversation with the coaching staff about what it means to be a man as part of a larger research project on the role of gender in violence perpetration. My dissertation research at Harvard had shown that young men who hold more hypermasculine attitudes are more likely to use aggression in their romantic relationships.
But my team’s research at Pitt found that leaders could be critical voices in their community, challenging the normalization of sexual violence in our culture and modeling prosocial behavior for their peers. That day, the coaches began a conversation that they had rarely, if ever, been allowed to have about the ways traditional notions of masculinity restrict all of us.
The coaches agreed that they were in a position to model respect and accountability, provide spaces for young men to explore their masculinity in healthy ways and challenge their student-athletes to embrace their leadership roles on campus. They committed to using their power to enact positive change.
My research and the lessons provided to me that year have inspired me to engage with leaders across the country to help them recognize their role in preventing sexual violence. In 2015, just before arriving at Michigan State, I spoke at Joint Base Andrews for the United States Air Force, encouraging leaders to recognize how they influence the climate of their units.
I followed this in 2016 with trainings for the United States Army, where I engaged with soldiers stationed across the globe in conversations about the intersections of gender bias and homophobia and how such bias fuels sexual assault. Here, in Michigan, I serve on a working group convened by First Lady of Michigan, Sue Snyder, to end campus-based sexual assault. In this role, I developed a comprehensive sexual assault prevention blueprint for colleges and universities across the state, highlighting the need for leadership to drive culture change.
I also serve as the chair of the MSU Sexual Violence Advisory Committee, convening leaders across campus to represent our respective communities’ voices as we move forward. We all, especially as leaders, have a role to play in modeling the behavior we want to see in those around us.
My research at MSU focuses on sexual violence prevention — with particular attention to how power manifests and shapes vulnerability to sexual violence. My team’s recent study on men’s roles in the #MeToo movement, illustrated by the #HowIWillChange discourse, highlighted that men are willing to model respectful behavior for the next generation.
These were the men I engaged on the football field. These were the leaders in the United States Armed Forces who were eager to get involved in this movement. These efforts, though, must be accompanied by intentional work to address the multiple ways that power shapes our lives and creates inequity.
Gender-based harassment starts early and is often used in conjunction with homophobic teasing to reinforce heterosexuality and hypermasculinity as the only acceptable ways to move through the world. People of color, especially women and gender diverse people of color, experience racialized (and racist) sexual violence. But the leaders and youth I have worked with over the last decade have convinced me that change is possible.
I often think of that day in the Woodland Hills locker room or the afternoon I stood surrounded by hundreds of Airmen in their perfectly pressed blues. We created space for honesty and asked these leaders to be better versions of themselves. They accepted our challenge. Now, it is our turn. I welcome you to join me, using our power to create respectful, diverse and inclusive climates for all.