We should applaud the brave women who spoke out. But the obligation to prevent harassment falls on all of us—and means questioning the nature of insecure workby / December 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
To his tweeted chagrin, grabber-in-chief Donald Trump was not Time magazine’s person of 2017. That honour fell instead to a group: the “Silence Breakers,” the #metoo movement of people first in Hollywood, then globally who risked their careers, professional relationships, and in some cases personal safety to blow the whistle on sexual harassment, abuse and assault.
That certain industries—Hollywood, the media, theatre and politics—have been hit by near-identical scandals is hardly surprising. All operate on similar structures, with unconventional working arrangements, a large number of young, powerless people working with far older men, and a high degree of precocity and jostling for a small number of positions. Sexual harassment exists in all industries: I’ve experienced inappropriate advances as a paper girl, working minimum wage cafe jobs, in admin roles and in the media. But certain industries are set up in a way to make abuse far more likely, and to close off the avenues for raising disputes over colleagues’ behaviour.
The fear, not unfounded, within these industries, is that if you make a fuss, you’ll never work again. While within these fields, many people have set up ‘Whisper Networks’—behind-the-scenes, ad hoc methods of alerting junior staff to known sleazes—so much work is reliant on word of mouth. Causing a stink over inappropriate behaviour carries the very real threat that the people around your abuser will ensure you’ll never find work again. You can too easily be marked as a troublemaker, or a careerist.
When the Harvey Weinstein stories began to pour forth, the usual questions abounded focusing on the behaviour of the victims rather than the immorality of the named predator: why did these women agree to meet him in a hotel room alone? Simply, because that’s how Hollywood operates. Refuse to do so and maintain your personal integrity, and you risk jeopardising your career, as actress Alice Evans discovered. Upon rejecting Harvey Weinstein’s advances, her husband Ioan Gruffudd was rejected for a Weinstein film he’d recently auditioned for, and both had their careers seemingly blocked within Hollywood.
Various aspects of working life in these industries make this environment possible. For most employees, their professional life is both casual and precarious. Actors, researchers, freelance journalists all work in informal ways, eschewing clearly-delineated professional structures for often verbal contracts, jobs found through word of mouth, with no responsibilities set in stone. Interviews tend to be one on one, rather than in front of a panel. Often, application forms aren’t used at all—people are hired at the whim of one person, and contracts aren’t even considered, let alone standardised.
To keep such jobs requires a high degree of flexibility in your approach to the job: a fact that can easily be manipulated. To get ahead, you need to know the people with the ability to hire, and make sure your skills are known about. The more unscrupulous senior figures know this, and will take advantage of the culture of networking to lure people out for drinks and dinner, engineering situations that enable them to take advantage both of their power, and the fear of the younger potential colleagues. When you know you can have your employment terminated at any point, and that you constantly have to consider where your next role will come from, you go to the drinks receptions. You stay until your boss leaves. And you do everything you can to avoid upsetting senior figures in your industry.
It should not surprise us that while obviously sexual harassment occurs in all industries, the rates of abuse in casualised workplaces appear to be far higher than in more traditionally-structured places of employment. For teachers and doctors, the pay grades and roles are set out clearly on entering the profession: senior staffers still retain the power to hire and fire, but not without supervision, and must justify their decisions to human resources departments. Applying for a job you’re fully qualified for and not being called to interview can be grounds for a discrimination tribunal in such industries—it’s incumbent on the employer to prove they have made their decisions based on evidence available. An actress or freelance journalist deprived of a role, or opportunity to write an article, has no such recourse, and complaining is an easy way to ensure you’ll never work for that person again.
It is troubling that such precarious workplace cultures are expanding throughout Britain and the US. An increasing number of people are, like journalists, actors and political workers, multi-jobbing. In part, this is because there are few full-time roles available: what roles do exist are often low-paid, and in a fully casualised industry the only semblance of job security is found in working for multiple people. (At least then, if one work source dries up, freelancers aren’t completely bereft.) Young people are particularly vulnerable—attaining seniority affords individuals both greater choice in work and more permanent positions as experience makes them less expendable.
Where these interactions take place, too, is important: many industries have increasingly long hours and heavy drinking cultures, to which young workers are especially encouraged to attend. Much has been made of the fact people in these industries often date purely within their industry. If you can’t ask colleagues on a date, worried commentators ask, how on earth will people live a normal life?
That canard deliberately conflates unwanted attention without consent with a simple come on easily rebuffed. Many people do form relationships with colleagues, and manage to arrive at that situation by mutual consent. But that so many people do end up marrying each other in the acting, political and media worlds is directly down to the pressures of the industry. If you work far longer than the standard 40-hour week, and as a result socialise mainly with your colleagues, you end up struggling to meet anyone outside of your industry.
That culture—throwing people together for long periods—also leads to a sort of forced loyalty. Fear that the resignation of senior officials could bring down Theresa May’s already weakened government has led to many Conservative officials decrying the Westminster scandal as a “witch hunt,” downplaying the incidents as simple flirtation or outright lies. Party loyalty has forced many people to remain quiet about the behaviour of many MPs, both through not wanting to hurt the cause you’ve dedicated your professional life to, but also through knowing the forced resignation of key figures if you come forward means your name will likely be blacklisted in future.
Even if you do risk coming forward, huge barriers still exist. A quirk in parliament means MPs are essentially self-employed. MPs hire their own staff usually. The MP harassing you could be your boss: your only recourse is to go to the whips’ office for your party, and then find that they’re unlikely to act anyway, instead vaguely referring to the ministerial code, and whether or not that MP has breached it.
Going public, meanwhile, means the media will pick over your private and professional life as over a chicken carcass. Both Kate Maltby and Jane Merrick, journalists who accused Damian Green and Michael Fallon respectively of inappropriate advances, were attacked by the Daily Mail, Maltby in a multi-page spread, and Merrick in an article accusing her of hysteria and downplaying the advance. Actresses who came forward about Harvey Weinstein were snottily dismissed as having benefitted professionally from being attacked by him and complaining only after the fact—particularly Lupita Nyong’o, the only prominent black woman to publicly accuse the director.
Many people haven’t come forward because the powerful protect the powerful and target the powerless. For people to come forward, they have to have to confidence they will be believed and can weather than barrage of press intrusion and invective from the abuser’s camp. With revelations about poor behaviour coming on a daily basis, parts of the media have closed ranks around some of the worst offenders. Often the dismissal of people’s complaints questions why so much time has elapsed between the incident and the revelation. The answer is obvious: the attacks take place when you are at your most powerless and can’t fight back. The revelations when you are much stronger.
Part of the backlash to the reporting of sexual harassment has been a backlash against feminist culture. For this behaviour not to be simply shrugged off, years of feminist campaigning has to be credited. When the Jimmy Savile scandal broke earlier this decade, the argument that such behaviour had been accepted at the time seemed deplorable to younger people. But feminist campaigning secured legislation to prevent sexual discrimination in the workplace; finally outlawed rape within marriage; has sought to more successfully prosecute rape and domestic violence in a court system that frequently lets victims down. The rights of children since the 1970s have been hard won through argument, with the advent of Childline crucial to taking child abuse more seriously, and ongoing campaigns to outlaw smacking forcing the conversation further.
That we are at a point where culturally, most people feel uncomfortable defending men who grope potential employees and ride roughshod over the concept of consent is a credit to decades of feminists battling the culture wars. The columnists and commentators continuing to dismiss the stories of victims areswimming against the tide of opinion. For them, the argument has been lost despite their unwillingness to accept it: far fewer people in society are happy for powerful men to act with impunity.
The next scandal waiting to erupt is likely to be less starry: for decades, students and researchers have complained the university environment has fostered an impunity when it comes to harassment. The same conditions: precarity in employment, huge power imbalances, boozy networking and insufficient reporting systems have allowed a culture of harassment to flourish. Recent articles warn of similar scandals in the hotel industry, where vulnerable workers are often similarly unable to speak out.
Much of the backlash against public conversations on abuse within these industries is centred around a fear of change: these are industries that require creativity, dedication and passion. They’ve functioned this way for decades, commentators argue. Any changes in structure will collapse the whole ecosystem and make working life impossible, comes the call.
But few other workplaces are as laissez-faire when it comes to working environments, recruitment procedures, and grievance reporting, and industries that aren’t so relaxed don’t have the same endemic harassment problems. Hollywood is slowly becoming less white, and slightly less male. Parliament has coped with changes in working practice brought with technology, and shifts to expense reporting. As the “me too” movement slips from the headlines, real change must begin. Putting in place proper procedures to protect people from assault and harassment won’t be the end of the world, despite histrionics and championing of the status quo. Arguing otherwise is a way of admitting you see sexual assault victims as necessary collateral for a political system or the film industry.