I wasn’t surprised when the charges and accusations piled up for Hollywood producer and former film studio executive Harvey Weinstein this past week.
The rumblings have been circulating for years, decades even. The New York Times cleverly dubbed him Hollywood’s Oldest Horror Story. But most of the women affected were never given a chance to feel the air of vindication before they were paid off, their embarrassment and shame, disgust and hurt, even their rapes according to some reports, swept neatly under the rug.
Many of the women Weinstein assaulted were paid to remain silent – and they did so because “Hollywood is a culture that runs on fear. And it is not like other professions, one top entertainment executive said, because “no one comes with a résumé. It’s about what you look like and who sent you,” said the NYT’s piece. So, any question of why did so many of these women stay silent – British actress Lysette Anthony accused him of rape that occurred in the 1980s – is a non sequitur; they did so out of fear for their careers.
The man seems to be a multi-faceted predator, lording his power over everyone in his path, whether there’s sex on the table or not. Oscar winner Kate Winslet came forward to reveal that Weinstein never let her forget his role in her career. “...he’d grab my arm and say, ‘Don’t forget who gave you your first movie.’ Like I owe him everything.”
It’s the worst kind of power playing, but it’s a familiar scenario in many industries outside of Hollywood that happens every single day. A young, unproven or inexperienced woman – or in some cases a man – catches the eye of a powerful someone who promises to help launch his or her career – but only if they do x, y and z, off the books, of course.
But what I did find interesting was how quickly the accusations poured out, and I’d wager there are more coming. It seems like every day since the story broke more people are stepping forward to pour gas on the fire, and make sure the ashes that were Weinstein’s career and reputation continue to burn.
“I hope it’s a witch hunt,” said a top Hollywood woman quoted in the NYT article. “I hope it’s a purge. There are people we have to get rid of in our business. Everyone knows them.”
For me, that’s what’s so appalling about this type of scenario, however familiar or ubiquitous it may be in the work world: Everyone knows it happens. But no one does anything about it until there’s a deluge of complaints. It’s almost like one woman’s word holds no weight. But a dozen or more, okay, now we’ll do something. Now we can’t grant any more free passes, it’s gotten embarrassing. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the motivation for punishment comes from the victims.
It’s gross. Why does it have to rain and pour crap before we confront a leader who abuses his or her power in the workplace? I think the answer to that question goes back to one world – culture.
Hollywood has a specialized kind of culture that breeds this type of abuse. It’s not that dissimilar to the foolishness we hear come out of the tech realm in Silicon Valley. Wherever there is an extremely male-centric power structure, a protective bubble forms that shields men from responsibility for their abuse of women trying to work in that industry.
In order to pop the bubble, however, women have to step forward. But when they do, not only are their current jobs in jeopardy, their reputations, and even their careers, their ability to get work elsewhere, are compromised if they speak out.
Like so many diversity-related issues, there is often a system, a well established structure at work, that keeps certain types of behavior common because it is ingrained and accepted. One man or woman against a system will almost certainly find it easier to accept abuse rather than attempt a David and Goliath-type fight and court personal and professional ruin.
But speak out we must, and we must be prompt in our condemnation of this kind of behavior in leaders. We must support those who risk everything by stepping forward, and we cannot punish or isolate them. And none of this, what did you do to prompt x, y or z? What were you wearing, and that sort of nonsense.
Being young and attractive is enough. The Harvey Weinstein’s of the world don’t need a reason to abuse their positions and the people under their care. It’s a choice, plain and simple, and it’s about power, not clothes, looks, flirting or any other trumped up excuse someone might give to excuse or defend the abuser.
Further, when it happens, organizations have to do what The Weinstein Company did, oust the perpetrator, even if his or her name is on the letterhead. To stop this kind of abuse requires that an organization take a rock solid, zero tolerance stance. Punishments must be swift and deep. We’re talking reputation, position, bonuses, sanctions, the works, and the punishments must be clear and most importantly, they must be consistent.
Then things will change.