As Harvey Weinstein heads to a hearing this month, in advance of his criminal trial on charges of sexual assault in June, new facts are sure to emerge about the many allegations against him. The film producer’s actions, and the “he said, she said” dynamic that accompanies many of these cases, will likely dominate the public conversation.
But we must not overlook the fact that Weinstein’s story represents a case study—one that showcases why we must establish a wider culture that takes sexual harassment, misconduct and abuse seriously.
The #MeToo movement that emerged after dozens of women came forward about Weinstein’s misconduct has empowered victims of sexual harassment and violence to speak the truth about the harm that has been done to them, and finally name those responsible. Their testimonies have exposed the ways in which our culture enables, dismisses and ignores such crimes, and drawn national attention to the impact they can have on the lives and careers of victims.
Weinstein’s case isn’t just about holding him accountable. We are now faced with the challenge of acknowledging that Weinstein, and others like him, could not mistreat women without the explicit and implicit support of an industry that continued to greenlight his films despite the “open secret” about his true nature.
Sexual violence cases become a matter of “he said, she said” because people who commit abuse set it up that way. Assaults are committed in private, away from witnesses or other forms of independent documentation, and our culture continually fails to recognize that this is an intentional strategy—and that people who commit abuse are counting on the rest of us to doubt the word of a victim without other witnesses. Corporate America, where many of the #MeToo era’s highest-profile cases have originated, has a particularly important role to play in setting these standards.
The #MeToo movement has shown that a clear business case exists for preventing harmful workplace conduct: There are direct financial costs associated with sexual harassment, from the Weinstein Company’s costly bankruptcy to the $120 million severance demanded by disgraced former CBS chairman Les Moonves; and there are indirect ones, too, such as the nearly 4 percent drop in CBS shares that came immediately after the news of allegations against Moonves were made public.
#MeToo has opened a door that won’t be closed. Companies and organizations that sweep sexual harassment under the rug are now being rightly held accountable by their customers, employees and shareholders.
Employers also have a moral and ethical responsibility to nurture a work environment that promotes the safety of all employees—from the C-suite to the intern cohort. Unsafe environments impact the productivity, well-being and job satisfaction of entire workforces. Nearly 75 percent of women who reported sexual harassment said they felt the experience undermined their job performance and made it more difficult to concentrate on their work. Boards of directors, too, should take active roles in establishing prevention and response mechanisms for sexual misconduct as core values of their company—and follow through when leadership fails to live up to those values.
But healthy organizational cultures also don’t exclusively emerge from the top down. It’s essential for companies to move away from a sole focus on targets, harassers and legal compliance to one where all employees, regardless of position, are empowered to speak up to change their organizational culture.
It’s time for companies to publish stated policies prohibiting harassment and discrimination that set forth examples of behaviors that will not be accepted in the workplace, and outline the procedures to follow in reporting and responding to harassment. It’s time for companies to formulate strong statements of values and ethics that prioritize respect, equity and the expectation that all employees have a role to play in modeling and enforcing these standards of behavior—and reiterate these values and expectations to employees often. It’s time for companies to encourage lower level supervisors and middle managers to quickly address problems and provide them with information on how to report experienced or observed harassment.
Research from the Harvard Business Review has found that being responsive to claims of harassment—acting in a timely, informative and considerate fashion toward the victim—can help organization mitigate public backlash “almost to the same level as an organization that has had no sexual harassment claim at all.”
The incentives are already aligned for companies to get this right. They simply have to take action accordingly. The time is now for bold action to end sexual assault, misconduct and abuse once and for all.
April marks Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and this year’s theme is “I Ask.” It champions the message that asking for consent is a healthy, normal and necessary part of everyday interactions. Harvey Weinstein didn’t ask, and he was enabled by a culture that said he didn’t have to.
If we finally hold him accountable this summer, we’ll be closer to ending sexual violence in one generation.