Part of the problem with sexual harassment – and harassment in general – is that it is often not limited to the actions of one specific individual, but it involves enablers who turned a blind eye to inappropriate and abhorrent behavior. Clearly, the sexual harassment and rape allegations against Harvey Weinstein are egregious and horrific and need to be investigated thoroughly, but we also need to shed a spotlight on those who enable this unacceptable type of behavior.
An op-ed by New York Times columnist Bret L. Stephens sums up the pervasiveness of the problem well: “The enablers were of all sorts. Corporate board members who declined to investigate allegations of his sexual behavior and now claim the news comes as “an utter surprise.” Assistants who acted as “honeypots,” joining meetings between Mr. Weinstein and his intended victims to give them a sense of security — and then leaving the predator to his prey. Reporters who paid him tribute with awards, did his bidding with fawning coverage, or went after his enemies with hit pieces. A lavishly paid Italian studio executive whose real job, according to former Times reporter Sharon Waxman, was “to take care of Weinstein’s women needs.” (A lawyer for the executive reportedly denies the allegation.) And then there was the rest of Hollywood.”
We all have been enablers at some point in our life. I’m not suggesting that we all have enabled or condoned harassment, but more than likely there have been times in our life when we should have spoken out against a wrongdoing and failed to do so.
What can we do to change this?
- Put yourself in that person’s shoes. It seems simplistic and like a lesson we were taught in childhood, but if for a moment the person who decided not to acknowledge or call out the transgression envisioned themselves as the victim the situation would be very different. It is easy to look away when there is no emotional attachment. But when you envision yourself or a loved one in a traumatic situation your ability to turn a blind eye is drastically reduced.
- Find a way to communicate the wrongdoing – either publically or anonymously. If you do not feel comfortable being the one to publically expose the perpetrator then write or type an anonymous note and leave it for a person in power. You can also call someone anonymously (there are ways to block your number from being displayed temporarily for a specific call) and report the issue or tip someone off that the situation needs to be looked into.
- Let the person know who is being abused or taken advantage of that you know what is happening and are there to help. Victims often feel ashamed or embarrassed and it is important for them to know that it is not their fault and that it is okay to get help. Connecting victims to resources as well as the authorities is an important way to avoid being an enabler.
Actress Alyssa Milano started a social media firestorm with her post "If you've been sexually harassed or assaulted write 'me too' as a reply to this tweet." On October 24, CBS News reported that there has been “over 1.7 million tweets that included the hashtag "#MeToo," with 85 countries that had at least 1,000.” Personal stories and #MeToo posts have also taken over Facebook as well sent shock waves in even the most progressive places such as California where I live.
Part of the ability to reject being an enabler is to feel like there are others who are condemning bad behavior. This happened recently when “a group of women leaders in politics in the state of California signed on to an op-ed with the goal of addressing systemic harassment in the workplace, and pledging not to tolerate perpetrators or their enablers. The Los Angeles Times ran it, along with this story.” By starting the “We Said Enough” campaign these women are collectively working to change the culture in Sacramento. Lawmakers are listening as the California Senate just announced that it has hired two firms to investigate sexual harassment complaints.
The issues of sexual harassment, degrading behavior and illegal interactions unfortunately are not limited to one person or one industry. In order for real change to occur each and every one of us needs to do our part. This means both men and women should not look the other way, should not ignore the problem and should not assume someone else will speak up. There are subtle and not so subtle ways to call out indignities and wrongdoings – the way in which you speak out is not as important as committing to do so.
Dr. Bernice Ledbetter is Practitioner Faculty of Organizational Theory and Management at Pepperdine Graziadio School of Business and Management where she chairs the M.S. in Management and Leadership degree program. Her research and teaching interests focus on values-based leadership, peace leadership, and gender. Dr. Ledbetter founded the Pepperdine Center for Women in Leadership to empower and advance women in the workplace.