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I’ve been in digital media for about five years, and during that time I’ve worked under at least two men who have sexually harassed their female employees. In one of these situations, I was a victim of ongoing behavior that included inappropriate comments about my appearance and personal life, as well as unwanted physical contact. In the other, I watched my boss, who purported to be a feminist, aggressively hit on interns and junior staffers, most of whom were very young and understandably looked up to him.
This is, obviously, not unique to me or my field. I am thankfully no longer in touch with either of these men, but as the Weinstein story continues to unravel, I find myself thinking about them. Not so much about their truly stomach-churning actions, though that’s there, too, but about how they might be reacting to all of this. I feel like I can hear them, loudly – a little too loudly – condemning the movie mogul. I can see them shaking their heads, bloviating about how gross and awful it all is and agreeing vehemently when others do the same.
Both of these men would likely describe themselves as politically liberal and philosophically forward-thinking. They’re pro-choice, they voted for Hillary Clinton, and they believe in stuff like equal pay for women. One of the companies I worked for, where my former boss is still in a position of power, has published multiple articles denouncing Weinstein and his ilk. I’m sure he pretends to agree with them. Does he even know that what he’s doing is pretending? Does he understand that his actions place him squarely in the ‘ilk’ camp? I don’t think so. Consider the fact that Weinstein himself is a major donor to Clinton’s campaign, helped endow a Rutgers chair in Gloria Steinem’s name, and probably performed similar disgust at the actions of colleagues like Bill Cosby and Woody Allen. Perhaps he believed all of this absolved him somehow. Perhaps my former bosses do too.
The one silver lining of this whole disgusting thing, aside from acknowledgment of the trauma the women who have come forward faced, is that supposedly men will look at what’s happening to Weinstein and realize that sexual harassment is not okay. What’s more, that if they’re engaging in it, they’ll be called out and there will be big, life-ruining consequences. But what do we do with men who, despite the striking similarities, can’t see themselves in Weinstein?
I think part of the problem is that it’s so easy to condemn a person like Weinstein because he seemingly had it all – fame, fortune, family, a beautiful wife, all of the things that our society equates with success. Indeed, every time a scandal like this involving a politician or celebrity goes public, we marvel at how ballsy the individual in question was to imagine that they, with their level of fame, could get away with something so obviously abhorrent. Of course it was going to come out, we think. Obviously they had to have known they would get caught. We relish a good scandal and pretend to turn it into some kind of teachable moment or societal turning point, while really just basking in the schadenfreude of it all. It’s easy for men like my former bosses to separate themselves from Weinstein because, in many situations, their propensity for sexually harassing women is literally the only thing they have in common with him. And that’s not exactly a character trail most people use to define themselves.
While sexual harassment scandals can be career-enders for celebrities, for non-famous men, stuff like creepy comments, unwanted touching, and sexual propositioning is much easier to get away with. To be fair, we’ve come a long way. It’s widely known now that in 2004, a similar story to the ones recently published in the New York Times and the New Yorker about Weinstein was killed at the Times following pressure from Weinstein and his powerful friends. It’s comforting that, just a decade later, we’re living in an era in which sexual harassment claims are taken much more seriously, at least when it comes to people who wield tremendous amounts of power. But there’s the kicker: If we assume that changes in how sexual harassment allegations are dealt with will simply trickle down from the top, the evidence shows that we’re sorely mistaken.
At both of my former companies, the inappropriate behavior by my bosses was an open secret. It was widely known about but never officially addressed, instead discussed in hushed tones behind closed doors, often by well-intentioned people attempting to warn women. When in one instance a brave colleague of mine did come forward with allegations of harassment, my understanding is that human resources brushed the whole thing off, supposedly giving the man a “warning.” His behavior towards the office’s female population, including those of us who reported to him directly, did not change at all. From what I hear, it still hasn’t. Meanwhile, at the other company, human resources didn’t even exist, a reality that’s increasingly common at start-ups and smaller organizations.
For men who have a high degree of power within a company but not much in the wider world, the stakes are much lower than for someone like Weinstein. And so too are the odds that they’ll be made to pay for their actions. Too many HR departments are willing to turn a blind eye by issuing a “warning” that ultimately amounts to nothing, too many women are talked out of speaking up or simply don’t have a platform to do so, because the Times doesn’t care if some mid-level guy at a mid-level company aggressively tries to sleep with you. Sure, they care if someone like Harvey Weinstein does it, but how many of us work for men like Weinstein? Not very many. Now, how many of us have stories like mine? I’d wager a frightening number.
Whenever these kinds of stories break, women who come forward after a number of years are inevitably asked why they didn’t speak out when the harassment initially occurred. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know why I didn’t. Because I didn’t think it would make a bit of difference. Sure, I was afraid of hurting my career and of alienating my bosses and a million other things, but if I had thought it would have made a difference – that it might have motivated the company to discipline him, or inspired him to change, or somehow saved other women from experiencing the same thing – I like to think that I would have come forward. It’s just that, in both situations, everyone knew what these men were doing, including the few people in the position to enact some discipline, and yet, nothing ever happened.
I’m sure there are men, in Hollywood and elsewhere, who will learn a lesson from Weinstein’s actions. I hope they do. If it stops even one man from flexing his position of relative power over some girl just trying to do her job, that’s great. But until companies start taking seriously the actions of regular men – even the ones who claim to be feminists and denounce Weinstein and pretend to be woke – it all feels pretty meaningless to me. Until men who sexually harass women are made to realize that, regardless of their rhetoric, they’re the same as Weinstein or Allen or whomever the creep of the moment happens to be, we as a society have a whole lot more work to do.