The revelations of Harvey Weinstein’s long, awful history of sexual harassment, brought to light last week by The New York Times and The New Yorker, and by more and more people speaking up since, have once again shone a spotlight on these issues not only in Hollywood, but in other industries as well.
But as they re-focus public attention on sexual harassment, they may also be creating a risk:
That Weinstein’s extreme example will become the new definition of sexual harassment, and that anyone whose behavior doesn’t go quite as far will rationalize their actions by saying, “Well, at least I’m not Harvey Weinstein.”
While the last few years have seen an increase in news stories about sexual assault and harassment by high-profile individuals and in high-profile organizations, too many times these stories do not get reported. Victims are often reluctant to speak up (“There is something really unfair in sexual harassment reporting,” said Jodi Kantor, who broke the story for The New York Times. “In the course of reporting the story, some of the alleged victims would say to me, ‘How come it’s my job to address this? I was the victim. I don’t necessarily want to go public. I didn’t do anything wrong. Why do I have to do this?’“), and reporters hold themselves to high standards of proof (Kantor and co-author Megan Twohey worked on the story for four months, and didn’t publish it until they had “on-the-record accounts from women … the financial trail of the money that was paid out over the years. And … internal company documents … [W]e wanted it to be irrefutable, because a lot of these things happened in the privacy of a hotel room, and we didn’t want a story that could be easily knocked down.”).
This means that when a story like the Weinstein story does break, the reporters often present a preponderance of evidence. While this makes the story hard to refute, it also establishes an even more extreme example of sexual harassment. Which then creates an even wider gulf between appropriate conduct between co-workers and the edges of awfulness that can now be imaged.
This story should challenge people in every industry, not just Hollywood, to re-examine their own conduct, and the conduct of their co-workers. Because as the resurgence of the #MeToo campaign on social media this week has shown, sexual assault and harassment are far too common.
But it’s not hard to imagine people in every industry missing the takeaway, and instead saying, “Well, I know what sexual harassment looks like — Harvey Weinstein. And we don’t do that.”
The same self-justification is at play when a company — and not just ones in Silicon Valley — tells itself, “Yeah, we could probably do better when it comes to how we treat women. But at least we aren’t Uber.”
And though these stories often escape the public eye until journalists can assemble a mountain of evidence, as we saw with Weinstein, the pattern of harassment is rarely a secret. In this case, as in many others, dozens knew but stayed silent. Many of Weinstein’s co-workers not only remained silent, but facilitated his behavior, fearful of what he might do if they said anything. Each of them contributed to “Harvey Weinstein” becoming a shorthand for egregious sexual harassment.
The desire to stay silent and avoid confrontation is understandable. But while keeping quiet might keep you personally safe, your silence may put others at risk.
One female executive who spoke to The New Yorker author Ronan Farrow said her lawyer advised her that she could be liable for hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages for violating the nondisclosure agreement attached to her employment contract. “I believe this is more important than keeping a confidentiality agreement,” she told him. “The more of us that can confirm or validate for these women if this did happen, I think it’s really important for their justice to do that.” She added, “I wish I could have done more. I wish I could have stopped it. And this is my way of doing that now.”
The longer people keep quiet, the stronger the culture of silence grows, and the harder it gets to speak up.
Speaking up on these issues can be difficult, even when the behavior isn’t as appalling as Harvey Weinstein’s. But speaking up is essential to creating a culture free of sexual harassment. Courage now is better than regret later.
This originally appeared in The Mouse and the Elephant Weekly. Read the full email, explore other resources, and subscribe at https://tinyletter.com/mouseandelephant/.