Will The Safety Of Women Ever Be As Important As The Bottom Line In Corporate America?

Photo: Milkos/ Getty Images.
It’s been nearly 10 months since Megan Twohey and Jodi Kantor's New York Times report on Harvey Weinstein first made headlines, exposing the beginnings of some very obvious cracks in the foundation of Hollywood’s facade. In the months following, Weinstein’s once-untouchable star has tumbled to notoriety, leaving in its wake a whole slew of other prominent men in show business who have been accused of sexual misconduct: Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., and Jeffrey Tambor, to name a few.
Susan Fowler had exposed sexism and the power imbalance in Silicon Valley with her February 2017 memo on Uber but it took Weinstein's overwhelming exposure for stories from other industries to begin to surface. Accusations spanning the literary world (Junot Díaz) to the culinary scene (Mario Batali) to the news industry (Tom Brokaw, Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer) emerged as the #MeToo hashtag sparked a movement in which survivors of abuse refused to be silent anymore. It felt as though a moment of reckoning had finally come, with pieces on how casino servers and hotel maids, retail workers, and even Ford employees faced sexual harassment.
Advertisement
On July 27, Farrow published what feels to be the next chapter for #MeToo and Time’s Up, a pointed reminder of how far we have yet to go. In an eight-month investigation, the journalist this time honed in on CBS chairman and CEO Les Moonves, an outspoken supporter of the #MeToo movement who has himself been accused by six women of sexual harassment and intimidation. (In a statement released in response to Farrow’s piece, Moonves expressed regret over how he “may have made some women uncomfortable” by making advances “decades ago,” but said he “never misused [his] position to harm or hinder anyone’s career.”)
Though it may be easy to read Farrow’s latest exposé as yet another situation of “a bad man doing bad things,” the report points to something far more amorphous and difficult to excuse: a longstanding culture of downplaying or ignoring bad behavior. In other words, the system that has given rise to these powerful men is the same one that continues to oppress women in the workplace, preventing any true change from taking shape. Removing the worst of these men from power is not enough; examining and then fixing the context in which they lead is the next step toward a truly equitable workplace.
In the piece, Farrow highlights six women who have come forward with allegations against Moonves, incidents which the women say took place between the 1980s and the late aughts. All of the women describe similar experiences, wherein they were discouraged by those they told from reporting the incident to the authorities for fear of “career suicide.”
Advertisement
According to actress Illeana Douglas, when she told her then-boyfriend Martin Scorsese about how the CBS executive had tried to force himself on her in 1997, Scorsese “urged her to be cautious” about taking any legal action against Moonves because he was such a powerful player in the industry. (Scorsese would later introduce Douglas to his lawyer, as she requested.) By encouraging a culture of silence surrounding sexual assault, Scorsese and other individuals who were in positions to help these women actually further reinforced the structures that keep these men in power.
It’s a theme that is threaded throughout the piece; Farrow frequently points to not only Moonves’ alleged actions, but the inaction and indifference of those around him. This, Farrow seems to imply, is ultimately where we need to focus more of our energies in order to enact change and push Time’s Up into its next phase. The issue is bigger than the graphic details of how a few men have done wrong by hundreds and hundreds of women in the workplace. It is systemic, something that Farrow referred to in a recent CNN interview as “a culture of impunity.”

The issue is bigger than the graphic details of how a few men have done wrong by hundreds and hundreds of women in the workplace. It is systemic.

Jeff Fager, the current executive producer of 60 Minutes, was also named in the piece as someone who behaved inappropriately toward women. Interviewees pointed out that Fager would allegedly use his position of power to protect other men who were accused of misbehavior.
This story shifts the question from "what do we do to keep women safe" to "what are companies doing to protect their employees and stop systematic abuse and its trickle-down effects?"
Advertisement
Presently, an annual survey conducted by the American Society of News Editors reveals that only 25.5% of the 661 news organizations polled have at least one minority journalist among their top three editors. And although there has been an increase in the number of women in newsrooms overall (15.5% of the daily newspaper staffs in 2017, as compared to 14.2% in 2016), the percentage of newsroom leadership comprised of women is still lacking, at just 38.9%. In other words, the individuals at the top of the company hierarchy still tend to be white men.
These statistics matter, because as reported on the Time’s Up website, research has shown that women in male-dominated industries (of which media and the news are a part) are sexually harassed more often than women who work in more balanced or female-dominated ones. And, tellingly, the perception of true diversity is somewhat skewed. According to a 2017 Women in the Workplace study conducted by McKinsey & Company, nearly 50% of men think that women are well-represented in leadership when just one in 10 senior leaders is a woman. (By comparison, only one-third of women say they feel the same.)
According to Debra Katz, a lawyer specializing in sexual harassment, there is a long-ingrained pattern of reinforcement that has given men permission to behave badly without consequence — and even, in some instances, get promoted for their work. She points out to Farrow that companies that enable and empower abusers — by making them CEO, for example — may be inundated with abusers who repeat that behavior. "“It can put a set of enablers in place," she said, who then discredit and challenge women who file complaints about bad behavior.
Advertisement
What this points to is a need to not only identify the men who have abused their positions of power over the last few decades, but also to create a culture wherein there is a seismic shift and internal reckoning with the factors and the people that may have contributed to that abuse of power in the first place. It was a lesson oft-discussed as the number of Weinstein's accusers piled up and one not likely forgotten as he stands trial for rape and sex crimes.
Men (and women) who are dedicated to seeing the #MeToo movement beyond initial outrage and protests need to do the hard work of examining their own perceptions and biases, to question what kind of ally they are in the fight for workplace equity if they quietly suggest keeping certain men’s behaviors out of the spotlight while championing women’s rights in the public eye.

Men and women who are dedicated to seeing the #MeToo movement beyond initial outrage need to examine their own perceptions and biases and question what kind of ally they are in the fight for workplace equity.

In knowing that the issue at hand is systemic in addition to individual, then perhaps dialogue around Moonves’ alleged wrongdoing can help to spark genuine conversation about toxic work environments for women the same way Weinstein’s downfall opened up the conversation surrounding sexual assault and rape. Rather than simply pointing to an individual and his misbehavior, we can begin to better understand the forces — non-disclosure agreements, settlements to prevent public lawsuits, failures to report bad behavior due to fear of industry blackballing — that keep people in power from being held accountable for their actions.
The recent allegations feel indicative of a shift in the conversation, and a necessary one. Yes, reckoning with the decades of abuse that women have suffered at the hands of men has been instrumental in the movement toward real change, with public figures who were once stalwarts of their respective industries rightfully named and put on trial. Survivors have found voice and community with others through the #MeToo movement, and there has been an overall feeling of progress. But at this junction, in order to advance Time’s Up and all the other organizations devoted to change in the wake of #MeToo, we need more.
We need companies to put as much value on protecting their employees from abuse as they do on protecting their bottom line. Women and other marginalized groups need HR to represent them and not just the interests of the shareholders. We need less lip service to sexual harassment training and the development of a better and more fair system for reporting actual sexual harassment in the workplace.
Now is the time for women to reclaim their role and their worth in the workplace and to reinvent a values system that has long been dictated by men, and for men and women both to make the proper incisions in society’s structure and see just where it breaks. It is no longer enough to be a witness; we need to testify. It is up to us to push corporate America away from its Mad Men roots and into a future that we can live with.
Advertisement

More from Work & Money

Watch

R29 Original Series