Arts, Culture & Media

So many women are saying 'me too.' Editors weigh in about how to move the conversation forward.

This story is a part of

Across Women's Lives

This story is a part of

Across Women's Lives

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Italian actress Asia Argento waves to the photographers during a photocall at the 55th Venice Film Festival Sept. 9. Argento stars in the film "New Rose Hotel." 

Credit:

Claudio Papi/Reuters 

Actor and director Asia Argento is fleeing her home country of Italy as a result of the “climate of tension” and “victim blaming” that has been lobbed at her there after she went public with rape allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Argento was among several women who shared similar testimonies with The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow. She has been lauded in Hollywood for stepping forward, but fiercely condemned by the Italian media and other outspoken critics.

As a larger Weinstein story continues to unfold, many other women outside of Hollywood are starting to say, "Me too." And some men are expressing regret for having stood by passively — or even been guilty of sexual harassment, themselves.

We talked to a number of magazine editors — Riese Bernard, CEO and editor-in-chief at Autostraddle.com, Katherine Speller, national news editor at Her Campus Media and Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch Media  — about how they see their role in advancing the conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace. Here's what they had to say.  

Please take our survey about sexual harassment in the workplace, below. And for more coverage from Across Women's Lives check out: As a woman in media, sexual harassment was the norm. I was told to keep it to myself. And: Sexual harassment at work is a global problem. Now, the world is finally talking about it.

AWL: After the Harvey Weinstein scandal, many women are coming forward and saying that they’ve been sexually harassed on the job. Have we reached a tipping point? Why or why not?

Riese Bernard, CEO, editor-in-chief, Autostraddle.com: I have a draft languishing in WordPress with the working title "Men Need To Stop" that I've gone in and edited every few months for a few years now, whenever something new happens — the Bill Cosby stuff, Woody Allen, David O. Russell. I could go on forever. I'm not sure that I'll ever publish it, maybe it's just like what I need to do for myself to maintain some vague semblance of sanity in these trying times. A lot of it is an all-caps rant wherein I often wonder if I sound like Valerie Solanas. But obviously, any woman including me could tell you that more often than not, we've endured some pretty brutal workplace sexual harassment. We've always known this was happening. Most of us are survivors. 

This is just to say that this has been building up for a long time. I know "tipping point" is just a figure of speech but it's also a really valid way to visualize this problem. We had this huge tower of really terrible stuff that's been getting higher and higher and more unwieldy for a while now. Then Donald Trump was elected president — which didn't add another level to the tower so much as it infected the tower with a virus that made it grow twice as fast. Then the Harvey Weinstein scandal dumped like 10,000 more things on top of this ridiculous tower and yeah, that tipped. It has tipped. The tower has tipped and pieces of it have fallen all over everybody and now we have to do something or else we'll die under here.

Katherine Speller, national news editor at Her Campus Media: I do believe we have reached a bit of a tipping point because there’s an environment that’s significantly more hospitable to allowing many women to come forward with their stories, to find the language that puts a name to their concerns as workers and women, and see legitimate actions taken by their bosses.

While there are still areas where women are shamed into silence or where they’re concerned about their livelihoods being at risk from coming forward, I think the potential public shaming that would come from an employer failing to protect and support their female employees is beginning to work as a motivator as well. 

Andi Zeisler, co-founder, Bitch Media: I would love to believe that it is a tipping point, but people said that about the Bill Cosby revelations as well. And that was a similar story — something that had been an open secret for decades, something that well-placed people in journalism and entertainment were able to bury and deflect from because they didn't want to rock the boat. There are always going to be powerful people who are able to maintain that kind of wall around their secrets, and there will always be people whose livelihoods depend on keeping those secrets. 

It's important to remember that we didn't have any kind of language for our cultural conversation about workplace harassment until relatively recently, in the early 1990s with the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings. And that's not to say that workplace harassment has been taken seriously on a systemic level since then. Policies have adapted, but people in too many cases have not. There are still constant attempts to discredit women and others who come forward — to say they just want money and attention — and we're seeing that right now with the Weinstein story. So I can't say I'm very optimistic that this is a sea change.

AWL: We've heard how hard it was for people to get news media attention on the Weinstein allegations and for some reporters to get the story taken seriously at their outlets. What changes do you think need to happen in journalism when it comes to covering alleged sexual misconduct in the workplace? In what ways is your publication responding?  

Riese Bernard: We're an underfunded lesbian-owned independent community-focused magazine so we don't really have the money to do a lot of reporting ourselves and also — although we're certainly not perfect in this regard — our demographic/community of lesbian/queer/bi feminists doesn't tend to struggle with not taking sexual harassment of women by men seriously in the same way that more mainstream communities and publications do. Listening to and believing people who share stories of sexual misconduct is a basic tenet of our overall political philosophy.

As for how our publication is responding, as I said, we don't have the budget to do much reporting ourselves. What we have done is that I created an open thread where I talked about some of my workplace sexual harassment experiences and invited readers to do the same, and we published a personal essay by a former aspiring actress who is gay and had a weird run-in with the Weinstein brothers where she talks about her experiences with sexual harassment in Hollywood. Many of his accusers are some of the most privileged women in this whole damn country, you know? Reading these stories was the first time I read anything about Angelina Jolie or Gwyneth Paltrow where I felt like, "Wow, stars really are just like us."

Katherine Speller: I believe this is part of the age-old “believing women” problem that is pervasive in the media and the culture. We saw it with Cosby allegations, with Woody Allen allegations and again with Weinstein — when the abusers have significant power (something abusers tend to have) there’s a reluctance to take on the Goliath. For all of the amazing features that uplift the voices of survivors and victims and thoughtfully and thoroughly approach allegations like the aforementioned, the ideas of these abusers being untouchable or of “access” being pulled for other verticals and future reporting manage to outweigh, to some, the benefits of holding them accountable. 

My publication prioritizes the voices and experiences of college-aged women and looks to offer them as many resources as possible. So our primary goal has been to contextualize the allegations in a way that helps young women understand the larger systems at play and that their experiences and stories are valid, arm them with the kind of stories that show how those systems keep marginalized people silenced and show how communities can be motivated to draw harsher boundaries that might keep victims/survivors safe.

But really ensuring that these stories exist in that larger context is key because otherwise — especially in digital media — they'll exist briefly in an outrage cycle and leave the cultural consciousness before any changes are made or any difficult discussions are had.  

Andi Zeisler: One of the most important things that can happen in journalism is for newsrooms and publications to diversify, especially at the top levels of leadership. We know that newsrooms remain overwhelmingly white and male, and so both what stories get covered and how they get covered reflect that lens. The newsroom makeup affects what stories are considered important, it affects what questions are asked, it affects possibilities for mentorship and nurturance of new talent.

AWL: What can women dealing with sexual harassment in the workplace learn from their mothers’ and grandmothers’ experiences on this front? And vice versa?

Katherine Speller: This is the gooey journalism-lover in me, but I believe there’s always a real power to telling our stories and listening to the stories of the people who came before us. It also comes back to the "context" thing I'm always harping about. While we can better understand the progress we have made, it also allows us to recognize the foundations (or, rather, a slightly more base level) of those systems of power and silence.

Especially in 2017 when there's a bit of a "trendy" vibe of paying lip service to progressive/forward-thinking causes without actually doing the work or making the space for marginalized people, I think the stories of our mothers' and grandmothers' arm us with a powerful bullshit detector. It's easy to think "oh, I don't have it that bad" when we're thinking about comments made in passing at work or the "weird moments" that didn't feel right, but understanding how women before us coped and how that informs how we all still cope with the bizarro headspace of living and working under a patriarchy is powerful. Again, it helps us name the issues at hand and build more powerful coalitions against it — we have the numbers, we have allies and we have the words for what we've been living with.

Andi Zeisler: I guess it depends on when their parents and grandparents were in the workforce. My mother worked in an industry that was feminized, but worked during a time when it was still all men at the top and harassment was considered just part of business culture.

AWL: Weinstein’s example has brought willful ignorance and silent complicity to the forefront — re-emphasizing that men need to speak up. What needs to happen so that people are willing to take a stand and speak up when they witness sexual harassment at work?

Riese Bernard: Well — this is hard, and I'm really not sure. I think what we see in the Weinstein case especially wasn't just that people feared they wouldn't be believed if they spoke up, but the fear of retribution if they did. In Hollywood and other creative professions, this is especially hard because hiring is way more subjective than it is in other industries. I don't think I know the answer to this.

Katherine Speller: I think you never really can underestimate the bystander effect — the idea that someone is less likely to step up and help someone being victimized when others are around. And if it means disrupting a person with power, someone who holds your future career prospects in their hands as well as those of the people they're hurting, there's additional pressure to stay quiet and to not make a mess.

I think we need to see some frank conversations and some movement toward educating men on the ways women are punished and have always been punished, ostracized and alienated for speaking up (or creating drama) in a workplace. I do believe that if men understood how women coming forward about their pain or the abuse they suffered often lose even more opportunities, it would help them understand how their voices are protected and prioritized a bit more (privilege is a hell of a drug) and maybe break through that bystander fog.

It also helps that the negative reaction to the high profile men who didn't speak out or do anything is setting a great precedent — if you stay silent, you'll be known as the man who did nothing and said nothing. 

Women generally look out for one another as best we can — we have our whisper networks, we try to uplift and mentor and sponsor one another, we let people know when we have had bad experiences or get weird vibes. But now it's time to expect men to understand that dynamic and leverage their privilege where they can to support the women (and other marginalized people) in their workplaces. 

Andi Zeisler: Everyone, not just men, needs to speak up, but men in particular need to blow the whistle because it's often the case that nothing comes across to a critical mass of people until men say it — the Cosby case is a really good example of that. 

Beyond that, the internal protocol for sexual harassment complaints needs to change, because things like NDAs and mandatory arbitration effectively muffle people's ability to speak out. It's to a company's advantage to portray sexual harassment complaints as individual issues of one person simply not being able to work with another person. When things like the Weinstein case or the Uber case open up and we can see that these problems are systemic, that's where the potential for change is.

AWL: What concrete actions or goals can we come up with to address the issue immediately? In the long term?

Riese Bernard: Honestly I think we'd see a sea change if more women were in charge of stuff. Like 51 percent of stuff should be lead by women, that seems like a good percentage. In leadership, we need more people of color, queer people, trans people, people who are not cis (cisgender) white straight men. I think a lot of sexist, homophobic and racist views are able to thrive when there are copious opportunities in any given workplace for cis white straight men to be in rooms that are free of women and POC (people of color). 

I think the root of the issue is toxic masculinity and rape culture, which is difficult to address with rules or policies or legislation. We need to make it easier to report and be heard; sure, there's training, tougher punishments, stuff like that. Punitive measures really only go so far, though. There's an element of restorative justice that needs to be considered, and more than that, the bigger goal should be not to fix how we handle it but to stop it from happening and therefore needing to be handled in the first place. So the culture has to change. What do we learn about in school? What do we see on television? Stuff like that. Changing a deeply misogynist culture is a difficult thing to pull off in a country where our president is a sexual predator! 

There are so many dimensions to this problem, right? For me personally in some work environments I've been in, sometimes it wasn't so much that the sexual harassment itself made me entirely miserable (I had an unusually high threshold for enduring sexual harassment when I was young) but the perception that I could only get ahead at work if I responded to harassment with flirting, if I played along; as well as the fear that if I responded with hostility, I'd be professionally punished, slowly pushed out of the company or what have you. As a queer woman, I noticed that male co-workers seemed a lot more interested in working with me when I identified as bisexual than when I identified as a lesbian. Even if sex or dating wasn't on the table, the perception of me as entirely unavailable and sexually uninterested in men had a real impact. Maybe some of that also was that I was no longer seen as part of their heteronormative social universe, I became different. (This is just my personal experience though, others have probably had very different ones!) In the Weinstein case specifically, there's a great piece by Bim Adewunmni in BuzzFeed, "There's an Elephant in Harvey Weinstein's Hotel Room," about what this specific scenario has meant for black women —  how when stars are selected based on who a producer is sexually attracted to, who gets left out.

But ultimately — any workplace where your ability to succeed is directly linked to your ability to endure abuse is a f*cked-up workplace. You'll see these environments most often in situations where a small power class rules over a large disempowered class, whether that means a rich white man being in charge of a huge group of attractive young actresses or an endless pool of migrant laborers. Is "socialism" a valid answer to this question? I think this answer requires 10 million words so I'll stop now and write a book about it later.

Katherine Speller: Immediately, we need to see more of this evolving social movement that has zero tolerance for abusers. If someone misuses their power to target their subordinates in a sexual, predatory way, they are showing they aren't worthy to be in power, to be praised or to be leaders. They're unqualified for the role. Full stop.

(That doesn't always mean someone's irredeemable or unable to change, but that also doesn't mean that they deserve to stay in power. So we need to find our footing as a society that recognizes those individuals as systematic abusers and not as products of an antiquated era, frisky dogs or any other cutesy term out there.)

We need to create an environment that's more hospitable to victims and survivors and less hospitable for abusers. That calls for transparency and it calls for allocating resources to protect people without money, power or influence.

We need to continue framing this as an intersectional issue: It's an economic issue depriving marginalized people of opportunities, career growth and resources. It's a gender, sexuality and race issue that sees individuals in the margins frequently targeted. Recognizing the depth of these systems is the only way to stop the pearl-clutching cycle of faux surprise and kick-start some worthwhile discourse that turns into worthwhile action.

Editor's note: The responses in this story have been lightly edited for clarity.