From Trump to Weinstein, women united now have harassers’ numbers
What caused the fall of Harvey Weinstein to happen so quickly? In some ways, it was the election of Donald Trump.
Looking back at the past year, a direct line can be drawn from the response to Trump’s unexpected electoral win to the fall of one of Hollywood’s major players. That line stretches from the election of Trump in November, through the summer’s dethroning of several men in Silicon Valley in a matter of weeks and then to Weinstein’s downfall earlier in October in only a matter of days.
Ahead of the 2016 election, there was a strong sense among many professional women that the United States was an increasingly progressive nation: Our president was a black man who was soon to be succeeded by a woman. There was also real energy around the progress in our careers: Success felt like something women could individually control — with our self-selected Facebook feeds reinforcing feminism’s march forward. We wore our pantsuits and we leaned in. We had this.
On the night of Nov. 8, that facade dissolved. The nation, including a majority of white women, elected a man whose words and deeds demonstrated his deep disrespect for women, as well as people of color, people with disabilities, Gold Star families — okay, many people. Trump may not have been elected for these reasons, but he was most certainly elected despite them.
On Nov. 9, we comforted our crying daughters, and our sons. And we began to face the fact that, despite the sense of progress we’d had, some of it was an illusion. The gender pay gap stubbornly persists — 82 cents for every dollar earned by a man, according to Labor Department data — and it’s likely decades away from closing. The advancement of women in business has stalled, with the corporate board gender gap also over a decade away from parity. The number of female CEOs is declining, and women receive only 2.19% of venture capital dollars, according to Fortune. Meanwhile, venture capital firm First Round found that businesses with at least one female founder performed better than those with all-male teams that the firm invested in. The underlying progress is so slow that Fortune recently reported that 25% of Americans think we are more likely to see time travel before an equal number of male and female CEOs.
So the day after Trump’s inauguration, women marched. It was a big, cathartic, energetic, multi-city event. But afterwards, so many of us asked: “Now what?” Over countless drinks and coffees, the questions were the same: What do we do? Who is our Gloria Steinem? Who’s going to lead us through this? No one had a clear answer. But we knew we needed to do something.
In a survey conducted at the end of 2016 by my company, Ellevate Network, which is a global network for female professionals, many women said their primary emotion following the election was frustration, followed by anger and sadness. Despite all of that “leaning in” and knowing our worth and career positivity, it became clear what we were doing simply wasn’t effective. The desire for action was there: 83% of respondents said feminism itself needed to change in some way, and the majority said that they were planning to help other women advance.
How would this desire for action manifest itself? Well, now it’s becoming clearer. In a new wave that began in 2016 with former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson suing the network’s chairman and chief executive, Roger Ailes, women across many fields are speaking out against their workplace harassers. In increasing numbers and with a growing urgency around the issue, they are seeing results.
Let’s face it: If you are a woman of a certain level of workplace seniority, you have a #MeToo story that likely includes harassment or an inappropriate proposition at some point in your career. I have several. When I was I my mid-20s, an important client asked me to meet him in his hotel room at 11 p.m. to “go over some numbers” — without the male members of the team. The implication was clear: If I didn’t go to his room, he would rate my performance poorly. Some years later, a senior figure from government and academia invited me to his hotel room after I thanked him for speaking at a research conference I ran. I suppose he thought that sticking out and wiggling his tongue at me, while making a guttural noise, would somehow be perceived as alluring; it was not. These instances — and others — happened against a backdrop of Xerox copies of penises being left on my desk by my co-workers on a daily basis in the early years of my career.
Almost any high-level professional woman has a similar story — or stories. But the challenges facing professional women are more insidious than blatant harassment: Any woman in the workforce has likely seen a white man next to her afforded the benefit of the doubt to be promoted on potential, while she would only be promoted on experience — experience she sometimes is denied in the first place because, you know, she doesn’t have the needed experience. This was writ large in the 2016 election: The inexperienced man with the swagger wins out over the better-prepared woman. It’s a difficult situation if you are a white woman; it’s nearly impossible for a woman of color.
In 2017, women are over it. We’re over playing by the rules that clearly never worked for most of us. We’re over working in industries that claim to be meritocracies, but are overwhelmingly populated by white men who hold most of the money and power. We’re over having to be the “cool” or “good” or “fun” girl at work, in environments in which complaining about gender issues is a sure way to be shunted aside, in which whistleblowing can be career ending, in which identifying with women’s issues can be considered career stunting.
We’re definitely over the double bind of being likeable enough but also strong enough to navigate the obstacle course of shifting expectations for female professionals. Oh, and we’re definitely over powering through this and then shouldering more than our share of housework and child care at home, while taking home smaller paychecks — smaller if you are a white women, and shamefully so if you are a woman of color or a woman with disabilities.
When you’re this over something, you need to change it — fast. What’s striking in this moment is the momentum with which stories of harassment and assault are emerging, and how quickly they are leading to resignations and firings of the alleged perpetrators: in two weeks for Ailes, and only a few days for Weinstein.
This shift can also be viewed through a historic lens, by recalling the lonely battle that investment partner Ellen Pao fought when she sued her boss Kleiner Perkins for discrimination in 2012. Contrast that to engineer Susan Fowler’s accusations against Uber earlier in 2017, which quickly became a rallying point for the women of Silicon Valley. Notably, in the aftermath of the Fowler case, and since Pao published a book detailing her story, Pao is receiving a more sympathetic second reading of her case.
That said, by no means does this shifting landscape mean that speaking out is now without risk: The online world remains one of anonymous, often frightening threats. Just ask Sarah Lacy, a tech journalist whose coverage of Uber’s toxic culture led to threats to her and her family — both anonymously, she told me, and from an Uber executive. This is why the vocal support of other women is so key to this wave; the belief that success lies in women’s individual actions at work has been replaced by the recognition of our power in numbers.
It is also worth noting that, in speaking out, these brave women are leaders in effecting progressive change: There is a clear thread from Hollywood’s “casting couch” culture to movies and TV shows that demean and marginalize women, ultimately providing poor role models for our daughters. There is a thread from the harassment of women to the toxic anger of Fox News at a evolving United States. There is a thread from photocopies of penises on my desk to the risk-taking on Wall Street that caused the 2008 financial crisis.
And yes, there is a thread from the toxic masculinity of a presidential candidate bragging about sexual assault to a now-sitting president taunting the leader of North Korea as though he is showing off in a schoolyard.
To the Weinsteins, to the the Bill Cosbys and even the Trumps: An increasing number of women have got your number. For years, we have quietly warned each other about you. Now we are speaking out, and supporting our sisters who expose you. And we’re costing your companies both our spending dollars and your reputations. Case study: #WomenBoycottTwitter — a reaction to the platform’s temporary banning of Weinstein accuser Rose McGowan.
This is simple — if you sexually harass women, your time is up. Harassers, consider this your wake-up call: You were never sexy, you were just abusing your power. As Kate McKinnon’s character said on a recent Saturday Night Live, “Pandora’s box is open, and Pandora’s pissed.”
We are over it. We are moving past anger and we are moving into action.