Lucy Nicholson/Reuters

As powerful men get fired, pulled out of movies, or taken off the air over reports of sexual harassment, media personalities from Oprah on down have started calling this moment a turning point. With so many women coming forward—and so many being believed—surely, they say, something has to change. Or maybe not. Today, I look into why it may be too soon to declare this a watershed moment.                                                                     


In the weeks since the allegations against Harvey Weinstein became public, many mainstream publications have kept a running tally of men accused of sexual misconduct. The New York Times’ list—26 names long, and counting—includes editors, actors, chief executives, news anchors, founders, and Emmy-award-winning stand-up comedians. But no mid-level managers. No parking attendants. No construction workers.

This makes sense. The media reports stories that interest readers—and readers are interested in accusations against names they recognize. But while the movement has toppled an astonishing number of highly visible, powerful men, there is little evidence that the “Weinstein Effect” will trickle down the corporate ladder.

Inspired by stories of high-profile men losing their careers over sexual harassment, millions of women used the hashtag #MeToo to signal that they, too, have been victims. The vast majority of their stories would never make it into a newspaper. Posts on Facebook or Twitter may inspire other victims of sexual misconduct to go public, but their authors often take the claims no further than social media. “A much smaller number are thinking about reporting to the police, their employer, or their school,” said Maya Raghu, Director of Workplace Equality at the National Women’s Law Center.  

Low-Income Victims Have a Harder Time Coming Forward

Particularly for low-income women, filing a formal report may not seem like a viable option. “The decision about whether or not to come forward is a huge risk because low-income women don’t have as many resources,” said Raghu. “They can’t get legal counsel, let alone pursue a lawsuit. Many decide it’s more important just to keep a job. For many women, sexual harassment becomes the price they have to pay.”

While many large, highly visible companies have moved to strengthen sexual harassment policies in recent weeks, staff of smaller organizations—less likely to worry about negative media coverage—may feel disconnected from the sexual misconduct that’s been all over the news.

Long before the Harvey Weinstein allegations, Lisa Senecal, a public relations professional, reported the sexual harassment she experienced at the hands of a male colleague. His defenders tried to shame and silence her, she wrote in The Daily Beast, and she agreed to settle the matter privately in exchange for signing a nondisclosure agreement. Despite the outrage at nondisclosure agreements provoked by the Weinstein story, she thinks her experience would probably have the same end result if it happened today. Now self-employed, Senecal works closely with a variety of small companies.

“Virtually nothing has changed so far,” Senecal said in an interview. “Just as individual perpetrators of workplace assault and harassment don’t see themselves fitting into the Harvey Weinstein category, I don’t think smaller organizations see themselves as places where something like this could happen. Bosses say things like, ‘Oh well, we all know each other so well, it’s a small company, he didn’t really mean that.’”

Similar Campaigns Have Had Limited Impact

Just over a month since The New York Times published its first story on Weinstein, we still don’t know whether the reports—and the subsequent #MeToo movement—will bring lasting change to American workplace culture. In the past, however, sexual harassment awareness movements have had limited impact.

“This is not the first campaign like this in recent years,” Washington Post writer Alyssa Rosenberg said on WBUR’s On Point. “We’ve seen people dredge up these incredibly difficult experiences, relive them for the public, deal with the consequences of sharing them publicly, and then not that much changes.”

When Anita Hill accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his Supreme Court confirmation hearing, she ignited a movement not unlike #MeToo. The slogan “I believe Anita Hill” caught on (and eventually became a lyric in a Sonic Youth song). “When Hill returned home from D.C., her office was filled with what were, in effect, MeToo statements,” said Leigh Gilmore, a professor at Wellesley who has written extensively on victims of sexual misconduct. Hill’s testimony prompted record numbers of women to file employment complaints and run for congress, but it didn’t create the kind of lasting change within workplace culture that many wanted to see. “There was some attention for a while, but then it died away and people moved on,” Raghu said.

In order to draw attention to the broader ramifications of the problem, Gilmore says the media needs to cover the sexual harassment and assault taking place at all levels of the workplace. Victims, she says, need to understand that men with far less power than Harvey Weinstein are capable of sexual harassment.

“It doesn’t require an enormous amount of power to abuse the power that you have.”


Caroline Kitchener


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