The Boston Globe in 2002 published a cover story highlighting widespread sexual abuse of young children by Catholic priests in the Boston area and the subsequent cover-up. The 2015 movie “Spotlight” brought into focus the pushback faced by the Globe from the Church itself! The system was standing up to thwart any moves that could weaken its foundation and impact its credibility.
Fast forward to 2014 and several women come forward accusing comedian Bill Cosby of sexual misconduct and assault, during their interactions with him several years ago. The accusations had to wait one full year to gain credibility and they did when the New York Mag published a cover story interviewing 35 women who had been assaulted by Cosby. NY Mag Story
October 2017 signaled the start of the #MeToo movement when several women used social media and other channels to share stories of sexual misconduct by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstien. And when Time magazine put this picture on its front cover in December, 2017, a clear message was sent to the world – the voices had finally been heard and the end of use of power for harassment and abuse, was nigh.
Over the course of the last one year, several bigwigs like CBS Chairman, Les Moonves, CBS host Charlie Rose, NBC’s Matt Lauer, actor Kevin Spacey and Android’s founder Andy Rubin have had to step down from their positions when sexual harassment claims surfaced against them. In cases like Bill Cosby and US Gymnastics doctor, Larry Nassar, criminal proceedings have led to jail time.
Why did sexual harassment and sexual assault continue unchecked for so long? Why was the journey towards justice so long and arduous?
There seem to be two key reasons behind this:
1. Protection of the establishment: The Boston Catholic Priests’ abuse and the US Gymnastics scandal were covered up to protect an establishment. The establishment supposedly was lot bigger than the crime of sexual assault. In case of the Boston Church, the priests were transferred with the hope that the damage could be contained. But in case of Larry Nassar, a single individual – the entire establishment came to his aid to protect the reputation of the institution. The only piece that can be inferred here is that the establishment looked upon this as a scar on its reputation. The reputation was considered to be more important than the crime. And this is the prime reason why abuse continued for so long – the establishment has the ability to use its muscle to bully an individual plaintiff into submission. The individual plaintiff doesn’t stand a chance before the financial and legal might of the establishment. The establishment fights before net income and taxes with a legal team that’s already on its payroll. The individual fights after net income and taxes with a legal team that they can hardly afford. In both the Larry Nassar and the Catholic priests’ cases, the system forgot about its accountability towards the safety of the victims.
2. Protecting the genius/revenue generator: The cases of Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose and Android founder Andy Rubin are cases of the system being rendered helpless before a major revenue generator. Former Uber engineer Susan Fowler opened up earlier this year in a blog post about the toxic culture of workplace harassment at the company, alleging that she was sexually harassed by a male manager at Uber whose actions were brought to the attention of HR. “Upper management told me that he ‘was a high performer’ (i.e. had stellar performance reviews from his superiors) and they wouldn’t feel comfortable punishing him for what was probably just an innocent mistake on his part,” wrote Fowler. In the battle between performance and behavior, performance seems to win. And once this message is sent across, the high performer’s ego touches the roof and they are accorded the cloak of invincibility. A harassed individual becomes a mere mortal in front of the invincible high-performer. And every time a harassed individual is ignored, the harasser becomes bolder. This is evident from Charlie Rose’s audacity to walk naked in front of some of his women colleagues. Read: the Charlie Rose scandal.
However, more fascinating was Charlie Rose’s response to the allegations against him – “All of us, including me, are coming to a newer and deeper recognition of the pain caused by conduct in the past, and have come to a profound new respect for women and their lives.” So is this an acknowledgement that before this, he didn’t think women and their lives deserved respect?
The abuse and harassment would have continued unabated but for a single new variable in the equation – social media. In the past, an ordinary citizen did not have easy and unbiased access to mass media. And the victims did not have the ability to come together and communicate via a single platform. Now, you are just 280 characters away from sending a mass message on twitter!
But even after the accusations became public on social media, the establishment’s first response was no different than before – ignore or deny. Only when it sparked an outrage and consumers threatened to boycott the business itself, did the establishment swing into action to protect its own turf. The establishment hasn’t changed yet, but the consequences to inaction have.
However, sexual harassment goes beyond women and men – it is essentially an abuse of power – either by a group of priests who have been accorded unbridled power by the institution they serve or by a prominent media anchor, who has been deemed above the law because of his ability to generate revenue for the organization.
Addressing the key issues: There are two issues that our society needs to address – respect for women in the workplace and safeguards against abuse of power.
For the first, you have to start early – very, very early.
Growing up, our parents were very particular about sending us to a co-educational school – a school where both boys and girls studied under the same roof. The aim was to ensure that when we joined the professional world, we knew how to engage and interact with our women colleagues. At school, we interacted, we debated and we realized that there was no difference in intellect and abilities across the two sexes – in short, we respected the female students in the same vein as we did the male students. Our teachers also ensured that equality was ingrained in our heads, by encouraging interaction and participation from both boys and girls. Parents and teachers have the accountability here – to ensure students graduate high school with equality and respect, ingrained in their psyche
The second issue is a systemic one – safeguards against abuse of power. Both men and women are equally likely to abuse power. This is evident from the case of California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, recently accused of sexual harassment by her male subordinates Read: Assemblywoman accused of sexual misconduct
The core issue here is checks and balances or a lack thereof. When the accused is part of the power elite of an organization – like Android founder Andy Rubin, it is difficult to find an equally powerful neutral ally to listen to you and bring the accused to the book. The HR department in every organization is one such potential candidate, but HR ultimately reports up to the CEO – so the garb of neutrality gets thrown right out of the window by the organizational structure itself.
To prevent the problem itself, sexual harassment training is a good tool for starters. However, currently only in 4 states – New York, California, Connecticut, and Maine, are employers required to conduct sexual harassment training. So, a lack of awareness is the first issue to be addressed right away. The power elite in an organization have to be made aware that “consent” loses much of its meaning when one person holds power over another.
The second, more effective way, is peer pressure. The harassment behavior of comedian Bill Cosby and CBS host Charlie Rose seemed to have been an open secret in their respective circles. If their peers had intervened and chastised them for the behavior, then possibly some victims might have been spared. Especially now, with greater awareness, it is important that the peer circle keeps everyone honest and holds itself accountable for the safety and well-being of the employees and staff. Harassment and abuse is perpetrated when the system ignores the behavior. Peers are a key element of the system and if they become an active part of the resistance, harassment and abuse in the workplace can be nipped in the bud.
It’s time to send the message – if “boys will be boys”, then “the law will be the law” too.