Why Won’t Powerful Men Learn?

No law and no regulation yet has been ambitious enough to solve the problem of rich and unaccountable men.

Black-and-white photo of a man putting his hand on a woman's shoulder and leaning over behind her

It was a black Monday for media titans: Tucker Carlson split from Fox amid allegations from a former producer, Abby Grossberg, that the set of Tucker Carlson Tonight was a hostile workplace for women; Don Lemon was fired by CNN just weeks after declaring that the Republican primary candidate Nikki Haley was out of her “prime” at age 51; and Jeff Shell, the CEO of NBC Universal, was ousted because of what he characterized as an “inappropriate relationship with a woman in the company” and what Hadley Gamble, the woman in question, described as sexual harassment in a complaint filed with NBC prior to Shell’s dismissal. The housecleaning may not have been entirely prompted by matters related to women and sex, but the overall effect was nevertheless redolent of the high #MeToo era, when consequences for offenders first began to materialize.

Nevertheless, a cynical observer might ask why, years after the advent of the #MeToo movement and the collapse of so many illustrious careers on ignoble grounds—even in this same industry—incidents like these keep revealing darkly retro workplace cultures. Is it bona fide #MeToo backlash, as commentators have worried in recent months, or a failure, as one friend worriedly confided in me on Monday, of the movement to radically transform that much at all? Neither, I would say: #MeToo is, and always has been, a power struggle; in many places throughout this industry and many others, it isn’t yet won. But episodes like these—daunting as their revelations are—nevertheless suggest that progress is still being made.

It’s worth conceiving of #MeToo as a struggle for power because this frame places appropriate emphasis on who is actually in control of workplace cultures and environments, versus a more limited view that imagines #MeToo as a collection of many different conflicts between many different individuals. Each of these instances matter—the personalities and experiences matter—but the systems of corporate hierarchy that allow high-ranking company players to victimize other employees are much more crucial to ongoing workplace toxicity than any one individual, or even all of the individuals combined. The pioneers of the #MeToo movement found their greatest success in looking beyond their immediate resources for justice—in going outside the systems that had disempowered them—to vindicate their rights.

For Harvey Weinstein’s victims, that meant taking their stories out of Hollywood and into the court of public opinion—and then the courts proper, as Weinstein was criminally prosecuted and convicted. For one of Roger Ailes’s many targets at Fox News, Gretchen Carlson, it meant escaping the forced-arbitration scheme that had kept Ailes’s egregious sexual harassment a networkwide secret by filing a lawsuit in open court, which Fox later settled. In each of these cases, the right to a better workplace was fought for and won through an exercise of greater power—typically in the courts, and often in full public view.

And those victories did come with lasting endowments. Last year, the Pew Research Center found that most Americans feel that #MeToo has made accountability for workplace sex discrimination likelier; when so much of a victim’s outcry is calculated on the likelihood of a favorable outcome, that kind of terrain-changing win is precious. And then there were the people all over the country who, inspired by the movement, organized under its auspices to take power: According to researchers at Georgetown University and the University of Oregon, “between 2017 and 2021, states introduced 2,324 #MeToo-related bills and passed 286.” There was less activity on the federal level, with the exception of the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harrassment Act and the Speak Out Act, both championed by Gretchen Carlson and signed by President Joe Biden (the former bill guarantees that a victim of sexual harassment or abuse can seek relief in court rather than through a secret arbitration process; the latter limits the use of nondisclosure agreements and nondisparagement clauses to silence victims).

I was at the House Judiciary Committee’s hearing on November 16, 2021, the day that several women testified about their experiences with sexual harassment and forced arbitration in support of the then-pending Ending Forced Arbitration Act. I had the sense that something momentous was happening for American workers. An employer’s ability to trap an employee in a private court of their choosing with a mere contractual clause is—and was even more so, before the bill became law—a ready aid to exploitation. The women who testified that day all said as much, under oath and on the record. The result of the bill is that employees who are sexually harassed now have access to that much more power.

But the #MeToo tale has continued long after the initial success: No law and no regulation yet has been ambitious enough to solve the problem of rich and unaccountable men. Instead the struggle to work and to live like dignified people in a civilized society has been won by smaller shifts in power in lesser victories that are still being decided, even now.