It seems like there is a new sexual harassment allegation bombshell each day in the world of media, politics, and entertainment. The firings and resignations, as well as the apologies, have been swift and seemingly unending. There are unprecedented numbers of women coming forward to name their high-profile abusers and harassers, and the stories they have to tell make you wonder just what’s been going on in this country for longer than we’d probably dare to guess. These stories would seem to indicate that what reads to many as egregious abuse has simply been a way of life for many others. What we are seeing is thus likely a mere drop in the bucket. The sad fact is, though, that although an undeniable shift in the momentum has pierced shrouds of silence, at present, it is doubtful that this barrage of accusations and ousters will meaningfully impact most of the rest of America’s workplaces. Let’s look at why.
First, people seem to care about the pageantry that plays out on the big stages of media, politics, and entertainment in a way that they simply don’t care about what goes on in more mundane workplaces. And people are fickle. Remember Richie Incognito? A few years back, fellow Miami Dolphins football player Jonathan Martin accused Incognito of bullying and hazing him until he felt forced to walk away from his spot on the team. And America was in an uproar, because a famous, wealthy Stanford graduate, who also happened to be a 300 pound plus offensive tackle, was successfully bullied into walking away from basically everything. People were outraged about workplace bullying—for about a New York minute—until they moved on from the story. And then they went back to not caring about the issue, and whether it was going on at their local big box store or their favorite restaurant. Because people need to toughen up. And we don’t want to open any floodgates.
But that’s just what’s happened with this weeks-long barrage of high profile sexual harassment accusations; isn’t it? The proverbial floodgates have been opened. Well, yes and no. Look at who the accused and the accusers are. Those coming forward are usually doing so to one of two entities: 1) a media hungry for stories about well-known men’s bad deeds and thirsty for justice; or 2) an employer or investors that are under a microscope (usually put there by the aforementioned media) and/or on the run from public disfavor. Put simply, big names like Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose bring in a lot of money for networks. But an angry public and advertisers can cost the networks even more. Shaming works. And social and other media are capable of being deployed to spread and magnify shame in an unprecedented way.
So, no. We should not acclimate to the idea that big names and rainmakers can be easily toppled by a din of voices crying out for justice. People have to hear and heed those cries. Make no mistake; society has not changed and evolved overnight. The alacrity we are seeing from production companies and networks is likely not the result of any longstanding, deep-seeded commitment to providing women with a sense of wellbeing at work; it is likely due to concern for their own reputations, a desire to be seen as “on top of things” and correct, and a fear of public shaming. On Wall Street, Madison Avenue, and even on restaurant row, there are rain makers and power players. But few, if any of us know their names the way we know Harvey Weinstein, Matt Lauer, and Al Franken. Anti-retaliation laws intended to embolden the victims of more “ordinary” abusers to come forward have severe limitations on them and gaping holes in them. Most accusers probably do not have a large, ready audience to listen to them, a real way to maintain complete anonymity, a din of voices to join, or little at stake in terms of their current job. This is not to say that all of the accusers that we have heard from so far have any or all of those things, or that making such an accusation under any circumstances is not arduous and courageous (it is), but it is something to think about.
And we should not be misled, because society is not doing all that it needs to do for the current momentum to take hold and spread to more ordinary workplaces. Sure; we are listening to the accusers. But we are not doing enough to examine the cultural context in which these types of assaults, attacks, and indignities have been, and still are permitted to take place and remain shrouded in secret. We are not doing enough to question things like how combinations of various employers’ deaf ears and various stars’ unchecked power permits the scaring of victims, and even some of the people they may have tried to tell, into silence. We are not doing enough to revisit a cultural consciousness that has historically written off much of the behavior that we now decry, as zany, humorous, or even endearing.
We are also not really confronting the numerous carveouts, explicit and implicit, in our collective sense of humor and even in our law, that have opened up space and permitted some of these behaviors, and many of the attitudes underlying them, to not only exist, but to flourish. The reason that terms like “locker room talk” exist in our lexicon and accepted tropes like the irascible, hand-sy older man or the powerful rainmaker who flatters the office ingenue with inappropriate attention, persist, is that somewhere along the way, the idea took hold that there are physical spaces and select purviews where what may otherwise be invidious is somehow humorous, adorable, or flattering. This is the real reckoning that needs to happen before we see substantial, widespread change.
So, while we are definitely at a unique juncture in history, we should not yet expect these “floodgates” to flush out a lot more of what has been going on outside of the view of interested eyes. This is where the real work, “processing,” and reckoning begins.