SEXUAL HARASSMENT: LET’S SEE THE FOREST FOR THE TREES

We all feared there would be backlash. The pendulum swung too far too quickly.  Many women friends and I discussed the predicted confusion for men in the workplace as all these stories emerged and suspected they would throw their hands up.

I am from the older generation of women that Lucinda Franks wrote about in the New York Times.  We toughed it out to prove ourselves. We needed to be and act like men to get ahead. We were on our own. I’m so in line with what she said that my uncle emailed me saying he thought I could have written it (yes, Dear Uncle, apart from that small detail of she being a Pulitzer-prize winner). Regardless, we all imagined men fleeing to the hills saying “Who needs women in the workplace? Why bother?”

Normal, average people wouldn’t even fathom acting this way so it’s hard for us to comprehend

What we didn’t predict was where the backlash would come from.  “Bad feminists” and “Good feminists” are squabbling amongst themselves as demonstrated, surprisingly, by Margaret Atwood, who I have deep respect for. In her piece this weekend,  Am I a Bad Feminist?, she defensively uses far too much ink on one (1) wrongly accused man, rather than discuss the overwhelming evidence of police reports worldwide that show more often than not, women who come forward are not heard or listened to. Globally, justice does not prevail for women.  Sadly, this was a case of trying to do the right thing and it back-fired. A one-off.  Wish she’d spent a little more time with her power & influence to turn the conversation forward.

In other instances, we are getting bogged down by semantics. We are name-calling. We should not be lumping together any and all complaint — that will muddy the waters.  There are too many accounts that are sidetracking the true issues to name, so here are a few from just the last few days to really confound you: the ultra-feminist website Babe publishing an expose of Aziz Ansari , Liam Neeson bemoaning the “witch hunt”,  France’s pushback against #MeToo.

CALL FOR CLARITY

Let’s try to see the forest for the trees. We need clarity for this movement to work. We must divide the issues into different buckets and address each one separately. We should not confuse assault with an off-colour joke. Dating a direct line-manager gets into unchartered territory that needs defined guidelines. Equal pay and office bullying are side-issues that are absolutely worth discussing, but best to start with narrow, focused goals.

As part of a women’s group dedicated to solving these problems, we are just starting to identify them, and it will take months of study and analysis before we can unlock effective and long-lasting solutions. But let’s start with assuming that we are talking about the workplace, or work-related scenarios (and not some chance encounter of someone famous, as recounted in the NYT retelling of Aziz Ansari’s date that went badly).

Unraveling this piece by piece, we have the obvious:

SEXUAL ASSAULT & SEXUAL HARASSMENT — The jokes regarding certain alleged (and in Louis CK’s case) admitted behaviour have already started. As if it isn’t really real — just something to laugh at now because it’s so absurd.  Let’s be clear: This did happen. There is no scenario where pulling your penis out and rubbing it against a woman or masterbating in front of women or pinning a woman down on a couch while kissing and groping, or grabbing her private parts without warning without consent is acceptable.

Normal, average, everyday people – men and women – wouldn’t even fathom acting in this way so it’s hard for us to comprehend. It’s easier for us to assume the stories are exaggerated rather than realise we are part of a larger societal problem that buried our heads in the sand for years.  I have heard some of the stories and they are horrific and most important, criminal offences.  In some, the women are petite and the men are physically overpowering. In others the women are young and impressionable and the men are Gods in the office, bringing in the big bucks for the networks or film studios.

The Definition of Sexual Harassment:  Here in the UK (and probably similar in the US) sexual harassment is a form of unlawful discrimination under the Equality Act of 2010 and is defined as such:

Sexual harassment is unwanted behaviour of a sexual nature which:

  • violates your dignity
  • makes you feel intimidated, degraded or humiliated
  • creates a hostile or offensive environment

You don’t need to have previously objected to someone’s behaviour for it to be considered unwanted.

Again, pretty clear-cut. But I suspect sexual harassment videos, educational and role-playing seminars in workplaces would be helpful. In the past, at all my places of employment, we sat through various HR seminars on discrimination, drug use, and sexual harassment with a sort of giggle and swagger like we were back in 8th grade and the teacher was teaching us how to put a condom on a banana.  Now, I think (I hope) they will be taken more seriously.

THE GREY AREAS

The grey areas are the ones we really need to nail down. Here are some that need delving into more:

DATING A DIRECT SUPERIOR/LINE-MANAGER — Back in the 1950s, my Southern belle mother arrived in NYC at “Manny Hanny” (the investment bank Manufacturer’s Hanover) working her way up to Head Librarian in the Research Department (2018 equivalent might be Head of Research/Duodiligence) by the time she was 26. My Dad was a Cornell grad recently arrived in the bank’s training program.  He was often found in the Research Dept unnecessarily and when their dating became serious and obvious, they knew one of them would have to leave as company policy stated interoffice dating wasn’t allowed.  What they weren’t prepared for was that Manufacturer’s Hanover management asked my Dad to leave, as he was one of many Ivy league trainees, whereas my Mom’s invaluable expertise and management skills over a team of women researchers was indispensable.  Don’t take my word for it, this policy was common practice: In George Clooney’s movie, Good Night and Good Luck, they portray 2 people dating in a 1950s newsroom.

It’s easier to assume the stories are exaggerated than to realise we are part of a societal problem

Of course, we’ve come a long way since then, but interoffice dating is a very tricky, grey area (at least in my mind and various polling). This is where I think research and study will help going forward.  If there is a married older “company” man in the office who is powerful and prominent, and he pursues aggressively a relationship with a younger, impressionable employee who may or may not be directly line-driven by him, but who knows that any move she makes will have huge repercussions for the office, what are the rules or guidelines here? What is her recourse? What if the person is not married but in charge of bonuses and the underling doesn’t want to be punished financially if she doesn’t respond accordingly? What if two people date, break up, and then the underling is in line for a promotion that the superior has a say in?

There are many scenarios that need fleshing out, but clearly defined rules and guidelines are a must.

OFFICE POLITICAL MACHINE — All too often, I heard from various women that they did not know who to turn to. They did not know their rights and were afraid of ruining their careers. At other times, women DID reach out to superior men AND women in the offices and were met with resistance or, shockingly, completely ignored. The change here should be swift: Put into place a sexual harassment ombudsman (for lack of a better term) or ombudswoman. Someone whose sole purpose is to field the various victims who come forward; someone who will investigate claims, work the alleged accusation through a proper system and chain of command. No one is above or beneath the law. Power and prestige in the office is invisible. The time for Non-Disclosure Agreements and pay-offs is over.

Additionally, there should be some set of rules or guidelines in place for AFTER an inquiry — whether it comes to fruition or not. The accuser is not a pariah in the office. She/he should not be sidelined or marginalised.  This is discrimination.  Again, I think more research and outside expertise would be helpful.

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IDENTIFYING SEXUAL PREDATORS — In a previous post I wrote about men as sexual predators (towards children and women and other men). This is a societal issue but as Arthur in the previous piece said “the time is right to do something now. It’s an appropriate moment in society”. He also said that the man who assaulted him as a child was “facilitated by a system that encouraged silence.” And that men like his abuser were “in a position of power and authority and gain/gratification was taking away the power of others.”  Finally, the experts on the program who study sexual predators said “underlings are powerless to do anything and predators know this.” Arthur went to police in 2003 and was ignored. He went back this past year and this time, the police listened. His abuser was sentenced to 4 years in jail last week.

Remember, we are not talking about someone who made an off-colour remark about a woman’s blouse or her lipstick (although that is something to address). We are talking about men who repeatedly, over 20 years in some cases, harassed or assaulted women (or men) in the workplace.  I cannot imagine that this kind of behaviour could have gone on without the knowledge of others around them. We need to identify men who cannot cope with power or who have serious predatory behaviour, however subtle or secretive. Identifying men like this is important to set the tone and morale of the office.  If others knew these men were doing things and getting away with it, what message does that send everyone else?

It’s the very nature of television news and Hollywood that these stories are fascinating to a larger audience and garnering attention. Do you think we’d be having this conversation if Joe Public from the accounting dept. was harassing women? Or if Jim X on the factory floor was assaulting underlings? We should not be fooled. The stories I heard relate to the headlines, but they are happening everywhere.

So, yes, if you see women in news and Hollywood picking up the flag and marching forward its because we have a unique voice and opportunity to change society globally.  We risk shooting ourselves in the foot if we lose focus, bite off more than we can chew, or in-fight. Let us not cripple the momentum.  We must prove that our earlier worries were unwarranted — that this #MeToo movement would harm us in the end.

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PREDATORY MEN & POWER

Listening to the Vanessa Feltz program this morning on BBC Radio London, I heard a very difficult interview with the most calm, decent and eloquent man named Arthur regarding terrible sexual abuse to him as a child by a teacher at Christ Hospital School in Sussex.

Arthur was riveting. Not because of the horrible details of what happened to him, but in the brave, articulate and resolved way with which he discussed it. It was a brilliant, emotional program and worth tuning into.

By talking about it, you are taking back the power the abuser stole from you.

But while I was listening, I was also thinking about the various stories of sexual harassment and abuse in the news recently by powerful and influential men in Hollywood and journalism.  I can’t think of anything more atrocious than being abused as a child – it really is undeniably the most heinous of things.  But hearing him speak about the abuse of power and society and the way he dealt with it, I couldn’t help but draw some similarities to the young women being preyed upon in offices across the globe.

He said so much worth repeating.  I was driving at the time so I might not have the details perfect, but Arthur was abused as a child between the years of 1970 and 1973 by a man named Peter Burr.  As Arthur says, he didn’t have the vocabulary or words to describe what was happening to him but he just knew it was wrong. In 2003, he gathered up his nerve and called the police and spoke to someone there.  They didn’t do anything and he wasn’t taken seriously. He doesn’t blame them.  He said “I bear no resentment.  There was no language in society, no understanding, no compartment to put that information in, and I did as much as I could.”

The abuser was facilitated by a system that encouraged silence

Fast forward to last year and he was listening to the Vanessa Feltz show about Jimmy Saville and abusers and it spurred him to get in touch with the producers.  Paraphrasing: “You store all of this up in a box. You tuck it away. After hearing the BBC London program about abuse and Jimmy Saville, I realized there were other men and girls now who were children who commonly had the same experience. I heard that program and thought more had to be done.”

So he got in touch with Gemma the producer who said perhaps we can help and asked him to go back to the police.  He went on to say “the time is right to do something now. It’s an appropriate moment in society.  For the first time in my life, I had a story to tell, a complaint to make, and the police listened and they acted and society supported that action. At last, justice is done.  I am grateful for that.”  Peter Burr pleaded guilty and last week was convicted on 9 counts and is serving 4 years in prison.

But what really got me is somewhere between 8:15 and 8:30 AM (about 1:15:00 into the program), he said a few things that rang so true to my experience and the experiences of others who were young women working in offices of powerful men.  I’ve been grappling with why I feel guilty about not coming forward earlier. I know the man who tried to attack me ended up harassing and abusing women for 20 years. I feel lucky in that I got away before any real damage was done. I was attacked, I fought him off, I got away. Others weren’t so fortunate. And that makes me cry and makes me very, very angry.

Arthur said the man who abused him and other boys was a man who was “facilitated by a system that encouraged silence”. This couldn’t be more true of the nature of newsrooms and Hollywood and frankly, everywhere else where there were predators.  He also said the man is like many predators who are “exercising their complete power of control over you for their own sexual gratification. Utter power over you.”  The conversation revealed that Peter took gratification by abusing the power of his positionHe was a man in a position of power and authority and his gain was taking away the power of others.  But it was also the culture at the time. Arthur recognizes this.  He said “attitudes of the police have changed so much. From the 1970s, 80s, even 10 years ago. The time is now.”

Later in the program they had experts on to talk about this further.  Power in relationships is the key.  Underlings are powerless to do anything and predators know this.  In this case, it could be young boys abused by teachers, or young women abused or harassed by powerful, influential, sometimes famous men whose authority and power in the office atmosphere is very apparent.  It is very hard to take BACK that power, as the panellists on Vanessa’s show said: “They are very clever and manipulative people who know they can dominate and that’s the reward for them.  The sexual predatory behaviour is the result.”

Arthur said that by talking about it, you’ve taken back that control that people had over you. Talking about it is empowering, he said.  You are not alone and you realize that when you hear other stories.  Even if you can’t go through the court process just sharing it with others brings back control.  You’ve dealt with it.

He said “I know that justice has been served.  I know I’ve done all I can do.”  I agree with him when he says that the time is right. Now, in 2018, wider society says this is wrong. Abuse of power and predatory behaviour is wrong. There is a big sea change.

I have heard from women who are raw. Who were attacked, who were abused, who were harassed, who were taken advantage of.  They were young, they didn’t know how to react, they were paralyzed with fear.  They did not know who to reach out to, how to report, what to report, what the repercussions would be.  Many feared for their jobs or the fallout from being the “problem” person in the office.  Many thought they were the only one harassed (myself included).  Others were so traumatized they left news completely.  They changed careers. How sad a state of affairs that young women journalists starting out in their careers and arriving at the bright, brilliant allure of the all-powerful television news networks ended up fleeing in fear and pain because of the men who abused their trusted power.  Worst still, others did report the problems and little was done.

I agree with Arthur: The time is now. As part of an organisation of women whose mission is to change the newsroom culture, I hope we can pave a smoother path for future generations.  Our culture, our newsrooms, our offices, our police, our superiors, our leaders all recognize that enough is enough. There is a new cultural awareness and a new intolerance.  Change is here. Finally, thankfully.

A NEW ERA ON SEXUAL HARASSMENT CULTURE & POLICIES

I couldn’t be happier that Time Magazine’s Person of the Year for 2017 is The Silence Breakers :

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The time is now to make change in both societal norms and corporate policies. But this is not something only women can do. Far from it, it must be fostered from men just as much — if not more. Together we can all step up to the table to discuss change in the culture and society.  Except for those very brave few, many of us – myself included – were complicit in our actions (or non-actions) regarding sexual harassment. And we are at a moment where the momentum has shifted dramatically so we must take advantage and not lose the drive and focus we rarely get.

Today, I am part of an organisation who made an announcement with the hopes to truly find a better way forward for the news industry.  Here is our website (and the goals we have laid out):

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We are still in nascent stages and will continue to grow and prioritise our goals and adapt to new directions. But beyond the above, and what’s mentioned here in the AP article today, here’s what I see as important to this cause:

  1. STRENGTH IN NUMBERS: We banded together to find concrete solutions and ways to move forward with effectiveness.
  2. STUDY: We hope — through a 6-month comprehensive, transparent, wide-reaching study — to be able to provide a blueprint that will be the foundation moving forward. This study will analyse the sexual harassment policies and culture within various media organisations.
  3. INCLUSIVENESS: We sincerely expect to do this study with the support and access from various titans of the media industry — the networks themselves and the people at the helms. But it’s important that an independent organisation like ourselves, working outside the system  and hierarchy, provide solutions and building blocks.
  4. RESOURCES: We want to provide a one-stop haven for anyone working in the media to be able to come to our website and see what their legal rights are, what support networks are out there, what counselling is available, what each company’s organisational sexual harassment policies are, what each network provides through it’s internal structure and reporting systems.
  5. LEGAL RIGHTS & LAWS: Knowledge and understanding of one’s legal rights is important.  We hope to provide sources or point people in the right direction to understand state and federal laws regarding sexual harassment.
  6. TRUST: Trust has been a big issue with sexual harassment. One of two scenarios happened in the past: either men and women came forward because they TRUSTED their organisations to protect them and TRUSTED them to help seek justice, only to find that their organisations let them down in the worst way.  Not only did they not protect them, they protected the aggressor and the victims were left to defend themselves. Or the second scenario: men and women didn’t trust the system to work for them and, fearing for their careers and advancement and being ostracised, they kept quiet. For far too long. We need to rebuild trust.
  7. DESTIGMATIZE: We must work with all of society and within organisations to destigmatize the role of the victim coming forward in sexual harassment cases.  Police officers countrywide will tell you this is still a problem within the courts as well as on the streets. As we have done on our school yards, so should we do in the workplace. The moment that a child comes forward with a claim of bullying, they are to be believed until the case is investigated. More often than not, school policy is to remove the bully at once, protecting the victim and the environment around them. We must adapt this attitude and policy for our offices.
  8. NEED FOR CLARITY: A majority of men (and women) are the good guys. However, many relationships and marriages are commenced and built within the workplace. We need a better and more clear understanding of the rules and rights within the workplace for dating, for relationships, for male-female co-existence where no one party is feeling uncomfortable. This is a grey area as many in the workplace are either above or below each other within the hierarchy, so there must be some clear policies in how to handle this.
  9. MEN: We absolutely need men to help us in our endeavours and goals for Press Forward. Having their input will be crucial to getting this right!
  10. REPORTABLE/PUBLISHABLE SOLUTIONS: We hope at the end of this we will have a positive outcome to the pain this past year has caused so many.  If, at the end of the day, we can feel part of a concrete solution that will stand as the gold standard by which others can build upon, we will have served a good purpose and fulfilled a need.