Lynn Povich: Many of us in the second wave of feminists thought that if you put the laws on the books, they would be enforced. So there was some legal consciousness at the time, Anita, that you were testifying. But we then realized that you can’t legislate attitude; you can’t legislate culture. And I think that’s why this is such an amazing turning point.
Amanda Hess: I almost feel like every generation needs to have its moment of public reckoning. I was 6 years old in 1991. I didn’t learn about the Clarence Thomas hearings and sexual harassment in high school. Then in college, I definitely had some weird experiences with professors, and boys were terrible, but I didn’t have a consciousness about what that might mean for me as a woman in the world. I really felt that when it came to the life of the mind, I was equal to men. When I started in the work force, sexual harassment to me was a dumb video I had to watch. Only once I experienced it did I realize that it was a present phenomenon. I worked in college as a messenger at a law firm, and one of my managers there would make comments about my body and bring me to the office computer to show me porn. I was so surprised and naïve, I guess, that I didn’t say anything. I spoke up only after a female manager pulled me aside and asked about him — I guess someone else in the office had complained.
Danyel Smith: It’s disheartening to hear Amanda talk about having nothing to look back on. I’m having an amazing career. I don’t have a lot to complain about. But if I were to start complaining, sexual harassment and gender discrimination would probably be at the top of the list. As a more junior person, I can remember having problems and going to my boss, and whether it was a sympathetic man or woman, the immediate response was always fear. You can see it on their face. You feel like you’ve just walked into some kind of haunted house. It’s basically, “Girl, why did you come in here with this?”
And then as a leader, man, you always try extremely hard not to be that person. You succeed in not panicking. You listen hard, and with empathy and concern. You try not to let worrying possibilities show on your face. You want to be totally present for that person. But in the past, especially as a younger manager, I’ve been scared for both of us.
Sex and Desire
Bazelon: Is anyone at this table ready for a rule: No more sex in the workplace?
O’Brien: What is sex in the workplace? Is that the guy who hugs you, and you’re like: You know what? I hate when that dude hugs me. Is that the person who tries to peer down your blouse? Or is sex in the office literally your boss saying: “Hey, let’s get it on! Close the door.”
Povich: We can’t ban sex in the workplace. I met my husband at work. I know a lot of people who met their mates at work.
Smith: If you’re spending eight, 10, 12 hours a day with people, you’re going on the road with people, you’re going on location with people, you’re going to lunches with people, you’re going on work retreats with people, the only time sometimes you’re even at home is to go to sleep. For so many people, your whole social life is caught up in your workplace.
Povich: I do think there should be rules about banning relationships between a supervisor and an employee who reports to him or her — and many companies have policies about that. And then you have to talk about power. If there is consent, are we saying consent is not enough? How do you define power? In the cases of Roger Ailes and Harvey Weinstein, they had ultimate power. But what if two people work in different departments, but one person is more powerful than another? Say, a doctor and a nurse’s aide? It’s complicated.
AdvertisementContinue reading the main story
Hess: I think one of the issues is that you can enter into a relationship consensually with someone who has more power than you. But it’s a different thing when you want to exit the relationship — and then it puts you in a bind.
Kipnis: But that’s pretty much the reality of life. There are always going be hierarchies in relationships, and there are going to be male-female hierarchies until we someday manage to overcome that situation. I think what’s necessary in the meantime is transparency about the power relations, so that the less powerful person is protected if or when things go wrong, as they invariably do when you get together with someone you work with. Been there! In academia, it’s actually very common to have couples teaching in the same department, and it’s just a matter of course that people don’t participate in personnel decisions if they’ve been romantically involved with the person. I don’t see why that can’t happen in other kinds of workplaces. I’d rather overdo it on transparency than overregulate our lives and prohibit workplace romances out of some misguided fantasy of universal fairness.
Bazelon: If it’s just human that sex is part of the mix in the workplace, what do we do about the reality that some people will benefit as a result, while others get passed over?
Hess: Wait — is being sexy a workplace skill? To me, that’s insane. I’ve never thought of that as something that I should cultivate in order to get ahead.
O’Brien: I think that maybe being sexy is not the right way to put it, but I would say being fun, being a get-along kind of person, laughing at a joke, understanding when someone sends a silly flirty message that you’re not automatically offended. There was a guy that I worked with, and he sent me a note, “Let’s get a room at the Carlyle.” And I had just had a baby, and I was so tired, and I said: “God, I would love a room at the Carlyle. I’ll tell you what — I will go and sleep by myself for eight hours.” If I had said, “I am offended,” that would not have worked. Absolutely not. I’d be perceived as not being a team player. Not fun. “You certainly don’t want her on your next project.”
Bazelon: When that guy emailed you, did he really mean, Let’s go get a room? Like, Let’s go have sex?
O’Brien: Do I think he actually meant that? No, I do not. I think he was just being an idiot. That was his ridiculous banter, and here’s my ridiculous banter back.
AdvertisementContinue reading the main story
Bazelon: You didn’t feel threatened?
O’Brien: Not at all. But he was not hierarchically above me. If my boss had sent me that exact same note, it would have been uncomfortable and problematic. I would have called three girlfriends and read the note to them over the phone to see how I felt about it and to figure out what to do. But that first guy was a peer, and part of navigating the workplace is to know how to come back with snappy repartee so that he would see that I’m fun, I’m not interested and let’s move on.
Reporting and Transparency
Bazelon: Anita, when you came forward to testify in the Senate hearing, there were actually three other women who were prepared to testify that they experienced or could corroborate harassment or unwanted attention from Clarence Thomas. But they were never called as witnesses. Even last year’s TV movie about the confirmation hearings collapsed those characters into one woman, reducing the scope of the allegations once more. Your story, a foundational story for us about sexual harassment, has been passed down as a story about one woman, when actually there were these other women who were trying to stand with you. I wonder how you think about that.
Hill: Well, of course I think about it from a selfish point of view — that these were women I didn’t know who had experienced or were confided in by someone who had experienced the same kind of behavior with Clarence Thomas that I had and could have added credibility to my testimony. But there was also a bigger concern: Those other three women’s voices were being erased. They were being told their voices didn’t matter. These were three African-American women, and I do believe that race played a part in the decision not to call them. It also sent the message to anyone else who was out there, who knew, who could have stepped up, that she shouldn’t even bother.
What has allowed so many women to come forward recently is hearing other women coming forward. And they have a platform — social media — to do it. And unfortunately, we know that numbers matter. I just hope that we can get to the point where a woman can come forward on her own and one voice is valued.
Bazelon: I think the current moment has been one of amazing solidarity, where women are coming forward perhaps in part because they’re trying to protect one another. I’ve been looking back on my own younger experiences of not reporting various things that happened to me because I thought: Well, I can handle this. I’ll be O.K. That was part of my identity as a feminist — I wanted to think that I could stride on. But now I think about the other women who might have been affected by these men we left in place undisturbed, and I wonder about my own complicity, a word that writers like Rebecca Traister have used.
Hill: And if we’re constantly saying, “Oh, I can handle this,” how will we really know how much we are injured?
Hess: Minimizing bad behavior is a coping mechanism. It’s how you survive. I’ve heard a lot of women who have come forward say: “I might not make a big deal about this if it’s just me. But if I can say something that helps corroborate somebody else’s story, then that’s valuable.”
Povich: I’ve been thinking about this because one of the things that worked for us at Newsweek when we filed gender-discrimination charges against the magazine in 1970 was that we were 46 women. We talked to one another, and we organized. I get that actresses in Harvey Weinstein’s world, they don’t work for him; they’re looking for a part. But at Fox News or NBC, there were a lot of women. And I assume if somebody’s hitting on me, they’re hitting on somebody else. And I’m not sure why early on some woman didn’t say to a trusted friend, “Ugh, I just went into his office, and this happened.” And why they didn’t then start to document a pattern of sexual harassment and start to organize as a group of women to say, “This is unacceptable.” It seems that many younger women, maybe until now, haven’t had that sense of sisterhood or talking to one another as a group that we did during the women’s movement.
Hess: Women still talk to one another. The women I know do, anyway. But it doesn’t always result in collective action. One of the things that’s happened in recent years is that even though women have gained footing in the workplace, workers in general have become less powerful in relation to employers. Unions have weakened, and corporate profits have risen. For the generation of women who entered the work force during the financial crisis, a job and career can feel incredibly tenuous. I think that can contribute to women feeling powerless.
AdvertisementContinue reading the main story
O’Brien: Listen, here’s the critical question: Someone sees someone else being harassed. Are they really going to go up against their boss, who likes them just fine? Are they going to put their career on the line? How many times have you been told by H.R. that this conversation is completely confidential, to find it repeated a million times? And then adding to the complication, you don’t necessarily know what’s going on — maybe she’s into it kinda sorta, or maybe she seems to be laughing it off. I just don’t know that a bystander is going to really do something that could jeopardize a career. Unless it’s her sister, unless it’s her best friend, I just don’t see that happening.
Smith: It’s all well and good to talk about the different ways that women can help one another and report, but I sit here and think, So now the women’s friends are responsible for reporting this guy who’s out here molesting people? Something that I think gets missed in these conversations, because people are so uncomfortable talking about the actual pain of women, is what it feels like to be in that moment of something happening to you. How hard it is to tell anybody, let alone tell an official of some kind. Lots of people are talking about the men who have lost their jobs — Oh, we’re going to miss this anchor or that comedian. But I’m wondering, Who is talking about the women and what we’re missing when they change jobs or careers after being harassed or abused? Who’s talking about that awful moment of wondering: Should I go forward? Do I have the kind of job where people are going to listen to me? Am I worthy enough? Am I a good witness? Did I do something wrong? Was my skirt too short?
Who Should Be Responsible for Change?
Povich: I think it’s become clear over the last couple of months that many men feel privileged that they can just invade your space, invade your body. And I do think this is a moment where people have to become conscious that you simply cannot do that.
Bazelon: Will the current wave of consequences, which does seem unprecedented, be the thing that makes men think twice and desist?
O’Brien: I think for some people, for sure. I was having dinner with a business professor, and he was saying that he has completely rethought how he interacts with young women and that now he would never meet with a young woman in his office behind a closed door. So his reaction is, No one will ever be able to say that there was something untoward. I don’t think that solves the problem or many of the problems we’ve been reading about — inappropriate touching or kissing. My argument to him was that there are plenty of ways you can mentor young women and not be alone in your office with them. You can meet with somebody in the cafeteria.
Bazelon: Do you worry about women losing out from boundaries like that?
Smith: I worry about it all the time. I hate to say it, but I’ve had so many conversations with women I’ve managed over the years, before they go on the road. So often, they’re going alone — to cover a band, to cover an artist. And I’ve said something to the effect of, “What we’re not going to be doing on the road is we’re not going to be putting ourselves in any potentially scary situations.” What’s stymieing and so disheartening is that when you’re interviewing somebody, it’s very helpful to make constant eye contact and to look super interested in whatever they’re saying. But that can be taken the wrong way.
Hess: It’s your job to create an intimate relationship with this person —
Smith: I know, and I say: “We’re not going be out there giving way too much eye contact. We’re not going be out there acting like we want to get laid. We’re not going be out there hanging out in the studio till 7 in the morning.” It’s awful, but I’ve felt like I’ve had to say it. Women older than me have said similar things to me.
Newsletter Sign UpContinue reading the main story
Thank you for subscribing.
An error has occurred. Please try again later.
You are already subscribed to this email.
Kipnis: What about the women who do want to get laid?
Smith: Those are some of my favorite women. And we’ve all been 26, and we’ve all been 19. And older! But here’s the thing, if you’re representing yourself as a professional, I need you to handle yourself in a certain way, and I need to keep you safe. But it is unfair. Those female reporters and critics can’t always do the same kind of reporting that men do — the rock ’n’ roll reporters, the hip-hop reporters, the ones who tend to get a lot of the acclaim. People say: “Where are the women in rock journalism? Where are the women in hip-hop journalism? Where are the women in pop-music journalism?” Well, they can’t always stay out with the men until dawn. They can’t always be alone in the darkest corners of backstage, soaking up the best and juiciest atmosphere.
AdvertisementContinue reading the main story
O’Brien: Would you have the same conversation with the men?
Smith: It’s a different conversation. I’ve had the luck and joy of working with guys I trust. A lot of men respect women at work. It happens, and it’s wonderful. But in new work relationships, especially freelance relationships, in certain situations, I have had to say, “I’m going to need you to act right.”
Kipnis: I keep going back to this thing about the body, women’s bodies as our own property and having sovereignty over them — I think that’s a place to start. I know there are already all sorts of harassment codes on the books, but what about a specifically no-touching rule? I think that would be a huge advance in the direction of women having autonomy over our bodies. Because I think women have tolerated way too much touchy-feely stuff for too long. You know what I mean — the ick factor, the guy who’s always got his hands on you. I do think the toleration for that sort of thing is changing. Including tolerating all the “I just meant it to be funny” jokey kind of groping.
Bazelon: So do we want a “no touching at work” rule? That is enticingly clear. Or do we lose too much from no touching?
O’Brien: I think that’s crazy.
Hess: I do, too.
O’Brien: Literally, when I came in, I hugged two people, right? And kissed them on the cheek. And half the people who are colleagues of mine, if we’re going work on a project and I’m excited to work with them, I would hug them and say, “Oh, my God, I’m so happy to see you.”
Kipnis: O.K., but then I think we need better training for women, maybe even starting in high school. We need to teach assertiveness. That used to be on the agenda, standing up to people and saying, “That makes me uncomfortable” or “Please don’t touch me.”
O’Brien: In the workplace, you say that, and you could lose your job, especially if you’re early in your career. Years ago, when I was probably 28, I was at an awards dinner, and a very famous anchor person, whom I had never met, came over to me. And I was in a strapless dress, and he started massaging my shoulders, and I remember thinking: Ugh, why are you touching me? You’re not a friend. I do not know you. And I remember thinking, I am just going to smile, say, “Oh, hi!” and twist my body back to talk to everyone at the table. And I did not drop a stitch. My entire goal was to make sure that no one around this table of high-powered people who could advance my career were going to see me thrown at all or were made uncomfortable. If you embarrass a person who has power, they will take it out on you. I believe that.
Hill: For years, we’ve been talking about strategies for working around a creepy person. There are three ways you could approach the problem of sexual harassment. You can fix the women. You can fix the guys. Or you can change the culture. And I think that really, at this point, what we should be talking about is fixing the guys and changing the culture.
Kipnis: Do we have to choose? Can’t it be all three?
Hill: Well, I think if we fix the guys and change the culture, we won’t need to fix women.
AdvertisementContinue reading the main story
Kipnis: Good luck.
Smith: Here’s why fixing women doesn’t work for me. We have a table here full of women who were raised to be strong, to be bold, to move forward in different school and work situations. We are the assertive women. We are the ones who know how to speak for ourselves and to say, “This is what I would like my raise to be; this is where I want to live.” There are probably 8,000 academic degrees at this table. Yet we find ourselves in scary situations. How much asserting can you do if someone with power over you in a given situation is using that to intimidate and abuse? There is no amount of fixing. There is no amount of shifting in your seat that you can do. Dudes need to just chill.
O’Brien: The answer is change the culture. Imagine if — back to my scenario when I was 28 years old — someone came over and started massaging my shoulders, and two men at the table who were equal hierarchically said right then and there: “Hey, hey, you can’t do that. Do not touch the young women without their permission.”
In our office, if someone says or does something that feels inappropriate, we shut it down immediately. We say: “You cannot do that. That is not how this works.” The other thing anyone can do is acknowledge and defuse the situation. If someone had done that at the table, I wouldn’t have had to worry about whether that dodge offended anyone. I think women worry about that a lot — Boy, I hope everybody else was comfortable with this thing that was perpetrated upon me.
Povich: I agree that we have to talk about men’s role in this — not just the bad men, but all the other men. Many of us are married to, or partnered with, very good men who would never do any of this, but they have a role in a culture that is complicit. The culture of a company or organization comes from the top, so the top people — mostly men — have a responsibility to make their employees feel safe and secure.
Kipnis: I really want to change the culture, and I really want to change men. I just don’t think it’s going to happen immediately. So I think we need to teach women, and particularly young women, strategies for dealing with the kinds of situations that are going to arise in the workplace, and in the rest of life too. I know from talking to my female students that they’re often at a loss about how to deal with the binds they find themselves in, especially in the context of hookup culture. What surprises me is that they often feel unable to say no to guys and just sort of yield instead, even when they don’t really want to. Somehow all the messages about assertiveness from the last few generations of feminism have gotten dissipated, and we’re back to Square 1.
Hess: I think that freezing and trying to slip away when something upsetting happens to you is a human response. I think it’s also a very human response sometimes for people who are witnessing some sort of harassment, even men. I don’t think we can necessarily teach that response away.
Hill: One of the things that I think you are saying, Soledad, is that there are big costs for being assertive, for asserting your own person, your own body. Also, I think we have to understand the dynamic. In many cases, when people resist harassment, it becomes a game for the man, and it escalates. And it only gets worse for people. And we have to think about other consequences of being assertive. Retaliation against people who complain of harassment is against the law, even if they don’t prevail in their complaints. But retaliation still happens to a majority of people who file harassment claims.
O’Brien: I do think it’s important to say that while women need to be aware of the ramifications of speaking up, it’s good that so many have stepped forward. Not every unwanted advance can be managed with humor or pushback. Also, I think we can try to create a more respectful workplace by speaking up before things get out of control.
AdvertisementContinue reading the main story
Where Do We Go From Here?
Kipnis: The thing that seems different about this moment — and I feel almost perverse saying this — is that it’s corporate bosses and their boards that are playing a major role in effecting cultural change by establishing this new zero-tolerance policy. Sure, maybe it’s really a public-relations concern about their brand, or insurance companies trying to limit payouts. But it still gives me optimism, despite its coming from the top down, not the bottom up.
Hill: About a month ago, I spoke to a group of businesspeople about this issue, and they seemed genuinely interested. Yes, part of it was probably a fear of losing money. Reputational risks seemed to motivate their interest in solutions as well. But I think part of it was shame that this was going on in their workplaces. The fact that I was even in the room means something.
Hess: Men are scared right now, which is good. But I think one of the problems in the current workplace is that women feel like when they speak up, either they will be ignored and dismissed — maybe literally — or that they’re going to ruin a guy’s life. I would like for our workplaces to have a space where women can speak openly and honestly about the culture there — the things that make them feel seriously harassed or assaulted, but also just a little creeped out, or knocked off balance, or diminished — that falls outside the legalistic, bureaucratic, totally intimidating experience of reporting to the H.R. office. There’s not always a lot of room for that other kind of conversation.
Bazelon: How should minor infractions be punished? If someone does something on the small scale, do we think he should suffer a long-term or permanent consequence? I realize a lot of people think now isn’t the right time to worry about whether men get to come back from being exiled. But when courts of law decide cases, they determine the term of punishment up front. We don’t have a clear way to do that in the court of public opinion. And I do worry about lifetime banishment for some people. I also worry about due process.
Povich: There certainly should be a thoughtful investigation and due process.
O’Brien: I think we conflate the many different definitions of sexual harassment — the legal definition, someone’s personal interpretation. Some things are legally a crime. Other actions would clearly violate a company’s standards: inappropriate language, physically grabbing a woman, pressuring an underling for sex. They are all bad and should be stopped, but I think they deserve different levels of punishment.
Hill: Yes, there are small and large offenses; there are degrees. But I want to put it all in context too. In this room, we are relatively powerful, relatively privileged. And what may be a small thing to us may not be a small thing to a woman who is making minimum wage and working in a place where she has to be nice to harassing co-workers in order to just keep her job. It could be a job where there are 50 other applicants ready to take it, and the woman may have a family to support, so she can’t even risk saying anything. If she does say something, and then her bosses decide that the infraction wasn’t major and “O.K., let’s keep that guy on,” then she has to look at that person every day. So I think we have to understand that whatever rules may work for us may not have universal application. Some people are just entirely more vulnerable.
Hess: The behaviors that meet the legal standard for sexual harassment are often really extreme. Way, way lower-level things will drive women out of the workplace that are not even technically illegal. Like, if my boss grabbed my breasts one time, he might not be legally responsible for sexually harassing me. But I would definitely be looking for a new job.
Bazelon: Yes. Sandra Sperino and Suja Thomas, authors of “Unequal: How America’s Courts Undermine Discrimination Law,” have written about this. They explain that the Supreme Court said — in that landmark 1986 decision — that harassing behavior has to be “severe or pervasive” to count as actionable. Lower courts applying that standard set the bar for meeting it too high. And we’re still stuck with that.
AdvertisementContinue reading the main story
Hill: But why does a manager or a C.E.O. or any leader have to wait until something becomes a violation of the law before they act? The law really is just a floor. A company can have its own rules that say: You can’t talk about porn or view porn at work, or make jokes about a co-worker’s sex life or menstrual cycle, or continue to ask a colleague to date after she’s turned you down twice. And if you do, you will get written up; it will go in your file. And if it happens serially, then there are more serious repercussions. You can be fired.
Bazelon: What do we want that we haven’t seen yet?
O’Brien: I think it’s about opening up more opportunities for reporting.
Bazelon: What would you all think about a reporting system that works like an escrow account? The idea is that when you make a complaint, it stays locked away, and no one acts on it, until someone else makes a complaint about the same harasser. Then the information goes to the authorities. Or you could have a system that alerts the people who made the complaints about other complaints, and they decide what to do. Conor Friedersdorf recently wrote in The Atlantic about this idea, which was proposed by Ian Ayres and Cait Unkovic. A variation of it is already being used at some universities for third-party reporting of campus sexual assault. Imagine a system like that was really trustworthy. Would it be helpful?
Hill: Yes, and some organizations establish ombudspersons within the organization. And companies are relying on independent third parties to investigate claims. This is especially important if the subject of the investigation is particularly powerful, for example in the case of Roger Ailes. Third-party investigators who are truly independent can give people within businesses more confidence in the outcomes.
Bazelon: What about changing leadership? Do we think that if there were just as many women as men in positions of power, or more women, that we would solve this problem?
O’Brien: TV news is full of women. It’s not an overwhelmingly male environment. The problem is a lack of leadership — that many of these harassment incidents are open secrets, that everyone in the company is aware that the culture will tolerate bad behavior.
Bazelon: What about more women top executives?
Hess: I don’t think it’s a silver bullet. There’s some research to suggest that even in female-dominated industries, men tend to rise faster and make more money than women do. Women gaining more power in society does not necessarily mean that this specific behavior is going to lessen. Some men are threatened by women in power, and sexual harassment is one way for them to take those women down a peg. It’s a way for men to claim physical and personal control over women, even — maybe especially — as they lose their grip over institutional power across the culture.
Smith: I don’t know that a world with more women in power would be that different. Women are not a monolith — value systems run the gamut. I will say this, though: Sometimes it seems like the more women have, the more confidently we move in this world, the more we gain, the tougher it is going to get for us.
Hill: Well, we’ve tried it the other way, with men in the positions of power, making all the decisions about hiring and firing and rules of the office. The stories from #metoo and from thousands of letters and emails I’ve received suggest that harassment is rampant. We also know that cultures that support harassment are likely to support other forms of discrimination. I’ve never heard of a harasser who is also an advocate for equal pay or equal hiring or equal promotions. So I think we have to move toward having more women in charge of workplaces, and let’s just see if it can be different.
Correction: December 13, 2017
An earlier version of this article misspelled the given name of a writer at The Atlantic. He is Conor Friedersdorf, not Conors.