In Harvey Weinstein’s wake, will anything change?
The trophies are so big, you’d think we were in some sort of golden age of pervert hunting.
Weinstein. O’Reilly. Cosby. Ailes. We got ’em all, stuffed and mounted and out of their high-profile jobs following various sexual harassment and abuse allegations. And so it is tempting for well-intentioned men — even those who knew sexual harassment was bad before they had daughters — to view this as evidence of some sort of progress.
But it’s probably not.
Because while it’s heartening to see so many brave women speaking out against the powerful men they say tormented them, it’s not at all clear that much has changed.
“If you take a historical perspective on this going back to Anita Hill, you see the huge outpouring of sexual harassment claims and women coming forward with stories of harassment by powerful men in the wake of her ordeal,” said Ellen Messing, a Boston lawyer who has spent decades representing women who have been sexually harassed. “Here it is, 26 years later and so little seems to have changed. There are still super powerful men . . . who seem to be able to do whatever they want for many years.”
The women who come to Messing today tell stories just like the ones she heard decades ago. High-salaried women with big jobs, harassed or even attacked and raped by co-workers or outside contractors, but who are told they could pursue their complaints or keep their jobs. And that’s at the top of the corporate ladder — working-class women face at least as much degradation and often don’t have the resources to come forward at all.
When someone like Harvey Weinstein gets caught, Messing said, something specific changes for the women still in his sphere, and perhaps others will feel more empowered to come forward or be more aware of their rights. “Something changes, but the overall culture is so protective of these guys that there will be more instances until something more profound changes.”
We harpoon a whale like Weinstein every once in a while, and we feast for a fortnight. But we need to be fishing with a net. If anything, we have better tools to bring down famous predators like Weinstein than we do the anonymous — and surely more plentiful — Mr. Roaminghands types at work in every industry. Tremendous public shame works pretty well for the rich and famous, but the middle manager forcing himself on his underlings doesn’t make for particularly good copy.
Stunning evidence of just how deeply ingrained sexual harassment is in corporate culture emerged Thursday, when TMZ unearthed Weinstein’s employment contract. The report alleges that Weinstein’s abhorrent behavior was so expected that all he had to do was pay the settlements out of his own pocket, along with fines to his company, and he couldn’t be fired. The ability to buy one’s way out of trouble is right out of the malignant rich guy playbook, but it was always more of an unwritten rule. If the TMZ report is to be believed, Weinstein wrote it down.
“The best thing we can do as a society is [to] have zero tolerance and to punish, to the extent that we can,” said Corinne Greene, an employment lawyer at Greene & Hafer in Charlestown. “Show that there will be consequences . . . the loss can be tremendous when and if you get caught.”
But the hard truth is that there still often won’t be any consequences.
“Most people aren’t really called out. Companies pay to resolve the cases,” Greene said. “I see this a lot in sales or high-tech companies. They have someone that’s untouchable . . . and they abuse that power.”
It’s pleasant to imagine that we’re getting better at this — that our society-wide outrage over Weinstein’s decades of misdeeds is evidence of our overdue intolerance toward sexual harassment in the workplace.
And perhaps this will prove to be a turning point. In the wake of Weinstein’s fall, thousands of women have shared their horror stories online.
“There are more people willing to come forward now. There’s obviously strength in numbers,” Anita Hill wrote in Variety as the Weinstein story exploded.
That’s progress, of sorts. But it hasn’t shifted the burden of solving the systemic problem from victim to perpetrator. Calling out harassment and assault is as critical as it is courageous; preventing it from happening in the first place is a fair bit harder.
“We have to deal with this as a society. It’s a legal issue, but it’s also a social and cultural issue that we still haven’t figured out,” Hill wrote.
Messing echoed that point. “We’re not changing the culture. We’re not changing a situation in which boys are coming out of high school and college — and business school and medical school and law school — knowing they have to behave a certain way,” she said. Until that happens, “change is going to be at best infinitesimally incremental.” It might even reverse course.
That’s true, even if we harpoon the occasional whale.