After Weinstein, a possible 'permanent shift' in discussion of workplace sexual harassment

Harvey Weinstein at the 70th Cannes Film Festival - amfAR's Cinema against AIDS Gala on May 25, 2017. (KIKA/WENN.com)

Another woman lodged explicit allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein Tuesday as a broader discussion about sexual harassment in the workplace in America spread on social media.

Mimi Haleyi said at a news conference that Weinstein "orally forced himself" on her in his apartment in 2006. Weinstein’s attorneys have repeatedly denied that he engaged in nonconsensual sex with anyone.

Haleyi is one of more than 50 women who have accused Weinstein of inappropriate behavior. Since the New York Times and the New Yorker first reported on these allegations of harassment and assault earlier this month, questions have arisen about how widespread behavior like his is in boardrooms and businesses across the country.

Several Hollywood executives and agents have faced similar allegations as women emboldened by Weinstein’s fall have come forward with their own stories of being propositioned, assaulted, or otherwise mistreated by men who wielded control over their careers. Producer Nick Savino left Nickelodeon last week after dozens of women accused him of unwanted advances or blacklisting threats over the last decade.

In one particularly extreme case, a deluge of complaints has fallen on filmmaker James Toback. The Los Angeles Times reported Sunday on claims by 38 women about Toback making inappropriate sexual advances on them. Since then, the paper has heard from 200 additional women recounting similar incidents with him throughout his career.

As with Weinstein, it appears some in Hollywood were aware of some of Toback’s behavior but not necessarily the full extent of it.

“He has done this to three girls I’ve dated, two of my very best friends, and a family member... twice,” director James Gunn wrote on Facebook Sunday. “Yes, he came up to her twice with the same stupid line, not realizing she was the same person.”

The post-Weinstein discussion of sexual harassment has quickly extended beyond the entertainment industry.

On NBC’s “Meet the Press” Sunday, four female senators shared their own stories of being groped or subjected to lewd comments earlier in their careers.

“This kind of unwanted attention occurs in a situation where there is uneven power, and it’s usually the woman who has less power,” Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, said.

The California Senate has hired outside attorneys to conduct investigations and review policies after more than 140 women signed a letter denouncing a “pervasive” culture of mistreatment in the state Capitol.

An open letter with more than 100 signatures alleged a similar culture of harassment against female candidates, consultants, fundraisers, and lobbyists in Illinois politics.

In New Orleans, local celebrity chef John Besh resigned from his restaurant group Monday after allegations of sexual harassment were lodged against him and his male employees.

“The beginning of the end of institutionalized Meathead Culture in the restaurant business,” chef Anthony Bourdain tweeted after the allegations against Besh were first reported.

Countless women have shared their own stories of harassment using the hashtag #MeToo.

“While it is important to document the extent to which sexual harassment is a widespread problem in tech and in Hollywood, the #MeToo movement has exposed just how big an issue sexual harassment is for all working women,” said Heather McLaughlin, an assistant professor of sociology at Oklahoma State University who has studied harassment in the workplace.

More than one-third of women questioned for a study she co-authored said that they had experienced harassing behavior at work in the last year, and over ten percent described it as sexual harassment.

“Hearing these stories, which sound eerily familiar for far too many women, has led men and women alike to ask what it will take for us to take sexual harassment seriously as an important workplace issue and create meaningful change,” she said.

Laura Beth Nielsen, director of the Legal Studies program at Northwestern University and co-author of “Handbook of Employment Discrimination Research: Rights and Realities,” said she is “not at all surprised by the avalanche of women who have been willing to say it.”

Surveys already indicate pretty large numbers of women say they have experienced sexual harassment and mistreatment, but even more have experienced inappropriate behavior that they may not realize was sexual harassment.

“If you really dig in, the numbers are actually higher than you think…. Even really smart educated women question themselves, ‘does this count?’” Nielsen said.

It is difficult to say exactly why the Weinstein story appears to have changed the conversation so radically. He is far from the first high-profile media figure to face such accusations in the last couple of years. A jury recently deadlocked in a criminal case against comedian Bill Cosby after dozens of women accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior, including allegedly drugging and assaulting a number of them.

Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes and host Bill O’Reilly were forced out of the network after similar claims against them came to light. Several women accused then-candidate Donald Trump of harassment last fall and he still went on to the White House.

An attorney for O’Reilly said in a statement Saturday that 21st Century Fox paid out almost $100 million in settlements over claims by women that Fox employees sexually harassed them after Ailes was fired. According to the New York Times, one case involving O’Reilly was settled for $32 million and the company still renewed his contract afterward.

Sheela Raja, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, suggested what we are seeing now is the cumulative effect of all of those cases.

“We’re sort of at a watershed moment where women are feeling like, ‘I can speak out about this’… I feel like there’s a strength-in-numbers happening,” she said.

Unlike in many past cases, the female victims who spoke out after the Weinstein story broke include big stars like Gwyneth Paltrow and Angelia Jolie whose lives are followed closely by fans.

“To find that so many female celebrities had to deal with this…then maybe I too can tell my story,” some women who otherwise might fear coming forward probably thought, according to Raja, author of “Overcoming Trauma and PTSD.”

Nielsen also sees a strength-in-numbers sentiment behind the snowballing allegations, as more women standing up leads to even more doing the same.

“It provides a little encouragement for women to share their stories,” she said.

The roots of the #MeToo conversation stretch back ten years, but it gained steam after Weinstein’s history was revealed. Last week, actress Alyssa Milano urged her Twitter followers to reply “me too” to her if they had ever been sexually harassed or assaulted.

As of Tuesday afternoon, nearly 70,000 people had responded and 25,000 had retweeted the message. CBS News reported that the #MeToo hashtag has been included in 1.7 million tweets from people in at least 85 countries.

“This is one place where we can see the benefits of social media, where people are able to read other people’s stories, whether they know them or don’t know them,” Raja said.

Social media creates an odd combination of intimacy and distance.

“It’s personal in that it’s attached to our name, but at the same time we don’t have to be face-to-face with someone to share our stories,” she said.

While we can easily see how many people are sharing these stories across Facebook and Twitter, Nielsen observed that those numbers do not show whether the conversation is migrating beyond the internet.

“Are women talking to their girl children about this? Are people talking to other people who don’t use social media about this?” she asked.

McLaughlin also wants to see whether these millions of tweets translate into action.

“I hope that the increased attention to sexual harassment will foster change, but it’s a lot easier to be outraged on social media than to challenge deep-rooted practices and beliefs within an organization or industry that allow sexual harassment to continue,” she said.

It remains to be seen whether this moment represents a fundamental change in the way American society deals with and discusses sexual harassment.

“I certainly hope it is a permanent shift in the way we talk about things,” Raja said. “We will hopefully look back at this and say it marks the beginning of a shift in our culture.”

She sees an opportunity for education to prevent men from behaving like Weinstein in the future in the current debate.

“We really need to shift the narrative from what women can do to prevent sexual harassment…we need to talk about how men can help change the culture on this,” Raja said.

This includes teaching men how to recognize women being uncomfortable or men exerting their power inappropriately, and showing them what to do when they see it.

According to Nielsen, even companies that already do sexual harassment prevention training can be doing it better. If they “ridiculously over-define” the term, some men will tune it out or it will create a backlash.

“You want to raise a generation of boys to men who are hopefully going to be able to view women as whole people instead of sexual objects,” she said.

Nielsen also recommended halting the use of confidential settlements in harassment lawsuits. Non-disclosure agreements signed by the victims have prevented them from revealing their experiences and enabled their alleged abusers to go on to harm other women.

“If there weren’t secret settlements, there wouldn’t be decades and decades like you’ve seen with Weinstein and Bill O’Reilly…. The public shaming would have happened sooner,” she said.

According to McLaughlin, the epidemic of sexual harassment underscores deeper fundamental issues in business culture.

“Sexual harassment often occurs alongside other forms of sexist or discriminatory behavior,” she said. “In other words, we can’t eliminate sexual harassment without addressing other forms of sexism, like the gender pay gap or the glass ceiling.”

Eliminating sexual harassment, then, requires erasing the perception that men are more capable and powerful leaders in the workplace than women.

“We need to value women as competent workers, as leaders, and as equals so that sexual harassment is not used as an expression of power against women,” McLaughlin said.

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