There have been so many horrifying stories about male predatory behavior since the Harvey Weinstein story broke earlier this month, but one quote has truly stood out.
In a damning memo about her boss, a Weinstein Co. employee named Lauren O’Connor neatly explained how the Hollywood producer could get away with sexually harassing so many women.
“The balance of power is me: 0, Harvey Weinstein: 10,” she reportedly wrote.
That one sentence sums up more than the situation with Weinstein, now accused of sexual harassing or assaulting more than 50 women. That same power imbalance exists in every corner of the country, in the White House, Congress, the media, police departments, academia, most big law firms, and nearly every major corporate boardroom, corner office and C-suite.
“Weinstein is the embodiment of the power differential that plays out all over the workplace in the United States,” said Teresa Boyer, the director of the Anne Welsh McNulty Institute for Women’s Leadership at Villanova University.
The power differential is extreme: Men hold nearly 81 percent of the seats in Congress. Three-quarters of state legislators are men. They make up the majority of mayors and governors. Eighty-three percent of elected prosecutors and 88 percent of police officers are guys.
Of the 500 chief executives at Fortune 500 companies, only 32 are women. Sure, conservative outlets like Fox News and the White House are largely run by men, but so are more “liberal” industries and companies ― the entertainment world is largely ruled by men, as is the news media and the tech world.
Even though women make up the majority of teachers and school principals, fewer than 25 percent of school superintendents are female. Who runs the banks? Men. Who flies the planes? Men.
Even with the best of intentions, male-dominated institutions send a clear message: Men are leaders, and women, if they’re lucky, might get a seat or two at the table.
The consequences are wide-ranging ― harming women individually and infecting our culture, politics and history. Just this past week, we’ve learned that political journalist Mark Halperin, former New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier and the publisher of Artforum magazine, Knight Landesman, have sexually harassed and demeaned their female colleagues. More revelations about powerful men seem to emerge by the hour.
Beyond their individual transgressions, these men, like Weinstein, had enormous platforms upon which to disseminate their worldview on culture and politics.
Halperin, in particular, wrote one of the most authoritative books on the 2008 presidential race, the first time a woman got close to landing the presidential nomination. “This guy, whose young female colleagues accuse of rubbing his dick against ... shaped (& profited handsomely from) the story of Clinton,” Rebecca Traister, one of New York Magazine’s political columnists. tweeted Thursday.
More recently, Halperin appeared on television to discuss accusations of sexual harassment levied against Donald Trump.
If men like this are responsible for analyzing the actions of other men accused of sexual transgressions, is it any wonder that Trump was elected? That women feel afraid to speak out? That known ass-grabbers ― a list which now includes a former president ― are dismissed as just boys being boys or as sad old men?
The consequences of male supremacy are baked into law and policy. Why is it so hard to prove rape or sexual harassment in a court of law? Men make and enforce the law. They’re more likely to sympathize with male offenders than female victims. You see it in the language around these cases: Women are cast not as victims but as temptresses. They’ve dressed too seductively, so men run wild with desire. The men can’t help themselves.
It’s the patriarchy, stupid.
Yes, lots of men have been speaking up in recent days about the horror of what Weinstein did and of sexual assault and harassment. Of course, there are male allies. But, generally speaking, men are fine with the massive power imbalance.
“Weinstein is the embodiment of the power differential that plays out all over the workplace in the United States.”
At companies where just 10 percent of leaders are women, half of male employees believed females were well-represented in the organization’s leadership, according to a recent study of corporate workers put out by McKinsey & Co. and LeanIn.org.
Just a few token women, in other words, makes it seem like the problem is solved. Sort of like how having a black president solved the United States’ race problem.
We can’t precisely know what a more gender-balanced world would look like. But there are glimpses. Many women luck out and land female mentors, who are unlikely to kiss subordinates on the mouth, or insist on a daily hug or chase women around their desks. Beyond that basic business, there can be something really empowering about working in an organization run by women.
Former AOL and Google executive Maureen Sullivan now works at Rent the Runway, where the majority of the leadership is female. Women make up half of the board, 70 percent of employees, 62 percent of corporate employees and an astonishing 75 percent of the executive team.
“It’s been life-changing for me as a leader,” Sullivan told HuffPost this summer. She’s worked at progressive places before, she said, but this is different. “There’s just incredible empathy.”
Would a wealthy man have acted as swiftly as philanthropist Laurene Powell Jobs did this week? Her organization, The Emerson Collective, was set to back a new magazine cooked up by Wieseltier. But after substantive reports surfaced about the way he’s treated women who worked for him, she killed the project.
Over the past year or so, some of the more egregious abusers of male supremacy got knocked off their perch: former Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes, Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, comedian Bill Cosby, Weinstein. Political journalist Halperin is facing consequences, as well. More women are coming forward.
This is something, but ultimately changes very little. Most women will go back to work, to school, to literally anywhere, and face down a sliding scale of bias, discrimination, harassment and worse.
There are the small things that start practically at birth: Children are taught that boys are strong and adventurous, while girls are weak and need protection. In school, girls are pushed away from tech and science, punished for wearing the wrong clothes.
Later, in the work world, women get talked over in meetings, more harshly criticized in performance reviews, paid less than their male colleagues. They’re less likely to be promoted.
When women become mothers, while working, they’re punished for that, too. The United States, run by men, does not offer any kind of paid leave. If a woman does manage to return to work, research has shown that her pay suffers. She’s less likely to be promoted.
Women in low-paying industries are particularly vulnerable. Women who are paid by the hour at McDonald’s have reported having their breasts and posteriors grabbed, and hearing obscene comments about their appearance and sexual orientation from bosses and colleagues.
In some workplaces, everyone stands by as the boss acts completely inappropriately with his female subordinates. Like at The New Republic.
The male-dominated culture makes it all somewhat OK.
There’s a psychological concept known as “social proof,” which means when someone you admire and see as similar to you does something, he or she sends a message that the behavior is OK, explains Stefanie K. Johnson, an assistant professor at the business school at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“If no one is doing anything about [harassment against women], it teaches you that it’s accepted and appropriate behavior. It’s modeling,” she said.
Johnson even said that it’s possible that the recent outpouring of anecdotes of harassment, assault and egregious behavior would actually serve as more social proof to some men. If everyone is doing it ― from editors to producers to presidents ― how bad could it really be?
All these behaviors, taken together, amount to a massive universal modeling: We are taught things about women and men that inevitably lead to these egregious outcomes.
There’s no doubt that women are increasingly more willing to speak up. We wouldn’t know about the allegations against Weinstein if several brave actresses hadn’t shared their stories with The New York Times and The New Yorker. Their collective power got him fired. A similar firestorm engulfed Ailes after former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson sued him.
These are cases in which the behavior was so egregious and sustained ― and the people involved so famous ― that eventually the protective bubble of power cracked. The stories seeped out, thanks also in part to the presence of more women reporting on sexual harassment. But these are exceptions.
And though recent weeks bring new hope that we’ve reached a more enlightened era, there are no signs that the male power structure is cracking anytime soon. Just look who runs the country.
Women aren’t expected to reach equality with men in the business world for about another 100 years, according to another Lean In study.
It’s going to be a long century.