One of the patterns emerging in recent sexual harassment cases brought to light by the #MeToo movement is the failure of human resources (HR) departments in many organizations to respond to sexual harassment complaints from employees. In fact, we’ve heard example after example of HR enabling retaliation against accusers, protecting powerful men who are accused, or simply dismissing complaints with only cursory investigations or none at all. Noam Scheiber and Julie Creswell of the New York Times explain that although employees are told to report mistreatment to HR, HR is often not the right place to go. The authors explain that there are various inherent conflicts in HR’s role:
A coaching client recently shared with me that while still a college student she was sexually assaulted by an important person at her school. When she told her guidance counselor about it, he advised her to say nothing to protect the reputation of the school. She said nothing. Now, many years later, and thanks to the #MeToo movement and some professional development work she’s engaged in, she has become aware that some of her physical and emotional problems are probably related to the buried trauma from her sexual assault. For the first time, she is starting to talk about what happened to her, which is so important for the healing process. Untreated trauma from sexual assault can cost victims their health, marriages, careers, and their lives if it is not addressed.
The outpouring since October 2017 of previously untold stories of sexual harassment and assault in the United States, known as the #MeToo movement, has been both shocking and exhilarating as brave women have been able to finally tell their painful stories and be heard and believed. With new revelations appearing in the US media daily about inappropriate behavior by both high- and low-profile men in the workplace, on college campuses, and in public spaces, it would be easy to miss the equally powerful stories coming out, often from surprising corners of the globe, about similar experiences. It would also be easy to get caught up in our outrage about these individual stories and to lose sight of the reason for this global phenomenon: patriarchal systems that are structurally set up against women. Here are some global examples:
The tidal wave of public accusations and firings of high-profile men for sexual harassment and assault, known as the #MeToo movement, has swept across several sectors and industries in recent weeks, including technology, entertainment, finance, and government. But not everyone who experiences sexual harassment and assault as an employee feels included in the #MeToo movement. Hotel and blue-collar workers are often invisible victims of sexual harassment for whom participating in the #MeToo movement either is too dangerous or does not help them.
The recent explosion of sexual harassment accusations against high-profile men and the outpouring of painful sexual harassment experiences in #MeToo messages on Twitter from women (and some men) across the globe have, as reported by Nellie Bowles, shocked many men into reflecting on their own behavior. My own partner, a devoted feminist, began to question whether any of his actions might have recently caused discomfort for a woman friend. In our discussions he agreed with a recent observation by Charles M. Blow of the New York Times that he (Blow) has male privilege because he is over six feet tall, weighs more than 200 pounds, and never has to think about being sexually assaulted or harassed. This male privilege can make him and other men blind or oblivious to the impact of their actions on women, even when they think they are just being friendly. Blow also makes the point that, as a man, being a good listener and understanding women’s experiences intellectually does not equate to having the lived experience of physical vulnerability and multiple occurrences of sexual harassment that many women have.
There is something in the news almost every day about sexual harassment and sexual assault. These subjects have also come up in every social gathering I’ve been part of in recent weeks, whether the groups are all women or mixed gender groups of friends and colleagues. It is easy to grasp how powerful men like Bill O’Reilly of Fox News; Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer; and Bill Cosby, the entertainer, could get away with harassing and assaulting young women for decades by paying them millions of dollars to keep silent when they complained. It is also easy to understand the power that these men wielded over the careers of young women, power that may have fed a narcissistic predatory tendency (remember the Access Hollywood tape?). What is not as easy to understand is how some people can become sexual harassers or abusers when they are not rich and famous. How does this behavior begin and develop?
Women have always found ways to help each other survive racism and sexism in the workplace by meeting informally outside of work for validation and support. This support might be in the form of listening to and understanding stories of mistreatment; sharing tips for how to deal with discrimination, salary negotiation, and work-life balance; or sharing the names of sexual predators to increase a woman’s ability to protect herself at work. Women across the decades and occupations have always benefited from this type of support in safe spaces such as living rooms and coffee shops. But the rise of the internet has opened important new forms of safe space.
The flood of sexual harassment accusations against and firings of powerful men—such as Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News; comedian Bill Cosby; Hollywood executive Harvey Weinstein; and Silicon Valley executives Travis Kalanick, Dave McClure, Justin Caldbeck, and Mike Cagney—can seem like a raging river that will change the sexual harassment landscape forever. But only time will tell if that is the case. Below are some recent sexual harassment cases brought to light by courageous women and men stepping forward to tell their stories—now that they feel people are actually listening to them:
Several high-profile cases in the news in recent months seem to reflect attitudes about the treatment of women changing for the better in Silicon Valley. These are the most notable examples:
- Dave McClure, the founder of the start-up incubator 500 Startups, resigned after admitting to sexual harassment. Later investigation revealed that the company had covered up an earlier sexual harassment charge against him by keeping the investigation confidential.
- Binary Capital imploded after several women lodged sexual harassment charges against Justin Caldbeck.
- Uber CEO Travis Kalanick resigned after former company engineer Susan Fowler published a blog detailing a history of sexual harassment at Uber.
Anita Hill, an attorney and professor at Brandeis University, is one of my heroines. She had the courage in the early 1990s to accuse her ex-boss Clarence Thomas of inappropriate sexual behavior toward her when he was her supervisor. When she learned that he was nominated for a lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, she felt she had to testify to his lack of moral character during his confirmation hearings. She came forward and spoke the truth of her experience. While she was not able to stop his confirmation, she did give a voice and a name to the abusive behavior that women have always been subjected to by powerful men—sexual harassment. Her testimony opened a door for women to work together with male allies to make the workplace safer and more inclusive for all women.