This Life: Is sexual harassment only about men behaving badly?


Every time you think the last man has fallen, there’s one more to add to the ever-growing list of sexual harassment claims.

Let’s see. Last week’s tally yielded journalist Matt Lauer, creator and former host of “A Prairie Home Companion” Garrison Keillor, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, and Reps. Ruben Kihuen (D-Nev.) and Blake Farenthold (R-Texas).

Of course, those are just some of the big fish we’re hearing about, which means there are some smaller ones who aren’t making the nightly news even though midlevel managers and anyone else with the ability to evaluate an employee would yield just as much power.

The #MeToo movement has certainly made it easier for people to share their stories, but even the thought of bringing sexual harassment changes can be terrifying.

I still cringe remembering the beating Anita Hill took at the 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Instead of the U.S. Senate focusing on what Thomas was accused of doing to Anita Hill, it was the other way around. Why, they wanted to know, were the allegations emerging now? Why? Why? Why?

Sound familiar?

The easy answer then as it is now is there’s power in numbers. Black activist Tarana Burke thought so 10 years ago when she conceived the Me Too movement as a way to unify women against sexual violence. This is exactly what she hoped for. That #MeToo hashtag, which emerged soon after Harvey Weinstein’s ouster from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, has been trending on social media since actress Alyssa Milano asked victims of sexual harassment and violence to let their voices be heard more than a month ago.

That’s a good thing. It’s even better that those men making the list, unlike Thomas, are reaping repercussions.

RELATED: Alyssa Milano calls on women to share sexual assault, harassment experiences

What I fear is the workplace culture that gave rise to these charges isn’t.

“This is not just about men and women; it’s also about workplace cultures that suppress employee complaints,” said Leora F. Eisenstadt, assistant professor of legal studies in the Fox School of Business at Temple University. “The real story is not just that people act badly. It’s not just about men abusing their power. The real story is about corporate enablers who didn’t see the harm in sexual harassment and who are blinded by money.

“In workplaces that minimize the harm that harassment creates, many allegations are quietly settled with confidentiality agreements in place to prevent further discussion. I think we are seeing how that approach and attitude towards harassment can backfire against a company, its brand, and its bottom line.”

Only recently has there been any backlash. Not only are companies losing prized CEOs and a lot of money, their brands are being tarnished.

But let’s not get this twisted. Women are still reluctant to come forward.

Those who do come forward tend to be people who no longer work for the alleged harasser, Eisenstadt said.

“I don’t think that’s an accident,” she said. “Harvey Weinstein was the watershed moment, but the trickle began in the Silicon Valley in 2015 when Kelly Ellis, a software engineer, tweeted about sexual harassment at Google after she’d left. Then again in the spring when Susan Fowler wrote a blog post after she left Uber. They were starting to speak publicly about it then, but only after they’d left their jobs.”

Gwyneth Paltrow, Ashley Judd and Angelina Jolie among others have accused producer Weinstein of sexual misconduct.

RELATED: Ashley Judd describes making deal with Harvey Weinstein to escape sexual assault

RELATED: Is Spelman’s reputation more important than sexual assault victims?

Despite the fact that sexual harassment has been against the law since 1964, Terri Boyer, founding director of the Anne Welsh McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership at Villanova University, said that it has long been an accepted part of our institutional cultures.

“In that acceptance, we have basically been telling women that they don’t have a place to tell — and when they do, they are actually the ones doing something counter to our culture if they speak up,” Boyer said. “Sexual harassment has always been about power. Those who have power over others — either in their gender status, or in their position in the organization, are the ones doing the perpetrating. That means that there is always a risk for those coming forward, since their perpetrators have power over them. It basically comes down to the risk that victims have to take to come forward (risk of job, risk of being re-victimized, risk of reputation, risk of personal relationships, etc.), and the fact that our institutions have not been doing their job to protect these women.”

We can also blame the law and how the courts have been handling sexual harassment claims and retaliation, Eisenstadt said.

“Courts have drastically narrowed the number of retaliation claims that have legal merit, leaving many workers without legal recourse when they complain internally about discrimination or harassment and face adverse employment actions in response,” she said.

For example, she said that if an employee complains about discrimination in a manner that the employer deems to be insubordinate, many courts will conclude that she may be terminated, demoted, etc., without legal violation because the employer is acting based on the manner of her complaint and not the complaint itself.

RELATED: Making the case for pay equity

RELATED: What’s it like being a #blackwomanatwork?

“The court doesn’t even look at the context of the behavior,” Eisenstadt said. “Lastly, the fear of coming forward is undoubtedly tied to the nature of sexual harassment allegations, the ‘blame the victim’ instinct of many who hear these complaints, and the already insecure position many victims of harassment find themselves in at work. There are deep-seated gender imbalance issues that gave rise to a culture of silence around harassment. It is only the strength in numbers movement we are now seeing that is able to break through.”

RELATED: Experts: How to talk with your children about sexual harassment

According to a recent study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, anywhere from 25 percent to 85 percent of women report having experienced some type of sexual harassment in the workplace, but nearly 75 percent of all workplace harassment issues go unreported. Furthermore, of those who did report sexual harassment, 75 percent of the victims experienced some type of retaliation.

That’s true even in many of the cases reported in recent news accounts, said A.J. Marsden, an assistant professor of psychology at Beacon College in Leesburg, Fla. Victims often cite fear of retaliation and job loss as the main reason for not reporting harassment.

“Weinstein, for example, would threaten young actresses’s careers or spread nasty rumors about them if they did not submit to his sexual desires,” Marsden said. “Unfortunately, when women do not report the harassment, it only reinforces the idea that this type of behavior is OK.”

If we’re lucky, we’ve seen the last of that ugly trend.

Find Gracie on Facebook (www.facebook.com/graciestaplesajc/) and Twitter (@GStaples_AJC) or email her at gstaples@ajc.com.



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