Sexual harassment and assault is the disease of every workforce
By Anna Freeman
I can’t pinpoint the first time I was catcalled or sexually intimidated, but I know it started when I was pre-teen, if not before.
I developed early. Older boys in my school would pass comment on my body as casually as they would ask to borrow a pencil. Groups of men would shout out disrespectful comments from the safety of their cars and vans, propositioning a girl not yet old enough to truly understand what harassment was. I would turn my head and blush, confused about the shame and embarrassment I would suddenly feel. And this was just the beginning of a complicated journey to womanhood. I would like to say that things have changed, but they really haven’t. Although I have been lucky enough to avoid the more violent and dangerous aspects of sexual assault, institutionalised sexism and male aggression has infiltrated many aspects of my life in one way or another. I guess what I’m trying to say is: Me too.
Amid the dozens of accusations against disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein – and other predators like Woody Allen, James Toback, Louis CK, Roman Polanski (the list is becoming too long to list them all) – and the countless women calling bullshit on a widely protected circle of aggressors, a social movement has emerged. #MeToo started trending on Twitter and Facebook and became the rallying cry against the pernicious ways sexual violence seeps into every orifice of society. Scrolling through my newsfeed, reading experience after experience, reflecting on the fatiguing ubiquity of harassment and abuse, it became obvious that this might just be the one thing that unites us in our differences. Sexual harassment is so prevalent that it jumps across social and economic divides.
Take the music industry, for example. It’s seen as one of the most exciting, glamorous and pioneering spheres to inhabit, but it has a seedy and twisted underbelly like everywhere else. 25-year-old Rachel Grace Almeida, currently living in Berlin via London and South Florida, first started working in music at 19. She admits that her idealistic vision about music industry values quickly unravelled when confronted with commonplace harassment, abuse and violence against women – and herself. ‘It is absolutely systemic within the music industry, no questions asked,’ she tells me, ‘Having a career in music – on top of being good at your job – relies on reputation and being sociable a lot of the time, which means that people will mull over abusive behaviour because of a person’s position in the industry. People get away with it because they can.’
Almeida was attacked in a taxi by the owner of a reputable PR company a year-and-a-half into her first job in music. After a work party in London, the PR forcibly tried to initiate a sexual encounter, before Almeida managed to stop the cab and jump out. He somewhat acknowledged his actions by sending a measly ‘stupid drunk horny boy’ email the next day, but his career carried on unscathed. And Almeida says this is no rare occurrence because it’s so difficult for women to speak out. ‘First of all, from a victim’s perspective, it’s hard to recount your trauma to yourself, let alone publicly,’ she says, ‘You kind of cower into a corner and try to make excuses for what happened because the shame you feel after being a victim of sexual violence is inescapable… From an industry perspective, you don’t want to be seen as a liability or a shit-stirrer for speaking out against abuse because more often than not, the abuser in question is in a higher position than you are, career-wise.’
The New York Times and The New Yorker’s explosive reports on Weinstein’s decades-long history of sexual assault opened the Pandora’s Box. Abuses of power aren’t always as cut-and-dry as a movie executive masturbating into a plant pot next to a young actress, and the deafening echoes of #MeToo around the world shed light on the epidemic of workplace harassment. It’s the open secret that seemingly no one ‘knows’ about, just like no one ‘knew’ about Donald Trump’s sexual impropriety, and no one ‘knew’ about Jimmy Savile’s sadistic pedophilia at the BBC. No one ‘knew’ because for every Weinstein, there’s dozens, if not hundreds, of enablers protecting them. Perhaps it comes as more of a shock in industries such as media, film, journalism, music etc., because these are the liberal, ‘lefty’ institutions we revere as kingmakers of progressive ideals.
Carol Duncan, from Sydney, both witnessed and fell victim to harassment and predacious men during her 30-year career in media. Now 51, and a local politician in Newcastle City Council, New South Wales, she has no problem recalling the toxic masculinity that was an everyday fixture in radio, music and broadcasting. Duncan tells me: ‘My first experience of being thought of as “fresh meat” was when a very well-known Australian recording artist was introduced to me by my state manager. The guy said to my boss, in front of me, “You’re her boss – you can make her!” (have sex with him). And one of my friends at this company was fired after being told by her manager that she “wasn’t pretty enough – not fuckable enough”. So many of us have never spoken out and certainly never named names as it would have destroyed our careers.’
Unequal power dynamics are the scourge of every workforce. And sexual harassment isn’t necessarily about sex – it’s about power. ‘Men are powerful, they hold power over us in so many ways,’ Duncan says, ‘I couldn’t afford to have taken risks that would have meant I’d lose my income! And sadly my experiences pale into insignificance compared to many, many others. Yes, I was abused, sworn at, physically assaulted – you name it. But I feel like I got off lightly compared to others.’ I share this feeling. I have almost excused the comments, uncomfortable exchanges, inappropriate emails and texts, heavy-handed groping because it felt like the lesser evil of a turgid misogyny. But that was wrong. What #MeToo has shown me is that we may sit at the same table as powerful men, but we don’t occupy the same position.
Nowhere is this more transparent than in the tech industry. Silicon Valley and its ‘brosephere’ consistently fails to adequately address gender inequality, hegemonic sexism and, bluntly, abuse. I see the tech industry as a simultaneous emblem of a changing world as well as a regressive powerhouse of ‘business as usual’. Although the technology is changing, its misogynist values aren’t (or aren’t changing quickly enough). Diane Palmquist, from Minneapolis, has been navigating the industry in spite of shockingly sexist propositions and harassment at the hands of male co-workers. ‘There is an aura of entitlement around young males who have achieved financial success in Silicon Valley,’ she explains, ‘This has produced a hierarchy of power where women are left out and sexually targeted.’
Speaking to Palmquist, who is the American head of a software company, I realise I may have been a little naive about the inescapability of tech industry harassment. Her experiences alone are enough to make my stomach churn. ‘I have so many stories about harassment,’ Palmquist tells me, ‘A colleague repeatedly told me that he had dreams about other men in the office gangraping me; a former Fortune 500 CEO walked up behind me, put his hands under my shirt and inside my bra, and asked me if I liked it; a Fortune 500 executive tried to strong-arm me into taking him to my hotel room so I rang security; eight men surrounded me and wanted me to tell them what my pussy felt like.’ What is clear is that no matter the wealth of the industry, the prestige of the company, the ‘privilege’ of a woman at work, structural sexism is still an everyday battle.