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Enough Talk About Sexual Harassment

Instead of asking women to bare their souls yet again, we should be demanding that men take action.

Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

Me too. But I’m done dredging up my painful experiences.

After The New York Times and The New Yorker unveiled decades of predatory behavior by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, women who have experienced sexual harassment and assault were encouraged to post stories of their abuse on social media with the hashtag #MeToo. The point was to give everyone—but, most especially, men—a sense of the depth and breadth of this problem.

The people who were emboldened to speak out are incredibly brave, and creating a space for victims to share their stories safely and with support is important. Their efforts seem to have had at least some impact on the men around them. But women have been asked to do this kind of awareness-raising work, in which we illuminate some of the darkest corners of our lives, for decades now. Radical feminists in New York held the first “Rape Speak Out” in 1971 to demonstrate how widespread the problem is. The country has been having a “conversation” about sexual harassment since Anita Hill testified before Congress in 1991.

In more recent years, social media has been harnessed for similar awareness efforts. The #MeToo campaign was originally started a decade ago by Tarana Burke, and was recently resurfaced by actress Alyssa Milano. In 2014, Elliot Rodger killed six people after posting a number of manifestos blaming women for rejecting him, declaring, “If I can’t have them, no one will.” In response, millions of women shared their experiences of catcalling, harassment, abuse, and other ways male behavior has made us feel unsafe under the hashtag #YesAllWomen (including me).

But did anything change after women bared their souls publicly? The hashtag that seems best remembered from that episode is #NotAllMen, the defense from insecure men who sought to absolve themselves from indictment, not #YesAllWomen. Did harassment abate? Were policies updated or instituted? A new paper even raises the theory that all of this sharing on social media may make us numb to feelings of outrage, leading to less concrete action, such as getting involved in anti-harassment causes or donating money.

It’s not women’s responsibility anymore to tell our stories of abuse and paint a picture of the misogynistic world we live in. If you don’t already know, there are plenty of resources where you can find out. Now men must take action so that the abuse doesn’t happen in the first place.

Let’s start with those who are in leadership. The all-male board of the Weinstein Company knew about Weinstein’s abuses for at least two years before they came to light, thanks to settlements reached with victims and a memo one courageous employee sent to executives outlining what was happening. But the only time the board seems to have had qualms about his behavior was when Italian model Ambra Battilana went to the New York police with allegations that he groped her. “The public nature of the episode concerned some executives and board members,” the Times reported. The memo was sent shortly thereafter. Yet he was allowed to keep preying on women after “board members were assured there was no need to investigate,” the Times said, and Weinstein settled with Battilana and the memo’s author. Only after the Times and New Yorker exposés were posted did Weinstein finally lose his job.

Something similar unfolded over the decades that Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly harassed and assaulted scores of women at Fox News. The TV network itself helped pay for some of the settlements O’Reilly made with victims. The two men were only fired a decade later, when the allegations were made public, and, crucially, outrage became a threat to advertising and a pending merger.

If we want to make sexual harassment a rarity, we have to start with leadership creating an environment where people feel comfortable coming forward, where harassment is not tolerated, and where women’s allegations are taken seriously and acted upon when they first surface. Given that men still hold nearly 80 percent of large companies’ board seats and also make up about three-quarters of their executive teams, this work falls mainly to them.

Men in the rank and file also have to take up this cause. When a woman speaks up about experiencing sexual harassment at work—and while men are also victims of harassment, more than 80 percent of those who file charges are women—she has a one in four chance of facing retaliation. Of those who manage to forge ahead and file a lawsuit, about half will end in defeat. In short, it is incredibly risky for women themselves to do something about what they experience.

Beyond asking men the obvious—to simply stop abusing women—we should expect them to make this their cause. Harassment is most likely in male-dominated industries and workplaces. There are plenty of men who don’t prey on women, but they are likely to end up bearing witness to it. Men think they are doing better at this than they are: 45 percent of white men think they have a positive effect on diversity and inclusion, for instance, while just 21 percent of women and people of color say the same.

“It is flat-out not enough for male mentors to do their best to avoid gender stereotypes and implicit or explicit bias against women. Sorry, gentlemen, but that’s the easy part,” psychologist W. Brad Johnson and sociologist David G. Smith wrote recently in the Harvard Business Review. “Female colleagues, in particular the women whom men mentor, also need them to be watchdogs for gender disparities, boldly saying and doing something when discriminatory, disrespectful, or harassing behavior arises.” It’s the difference between passively accepting women as coworkers and active inclusion that ensures they’re respected and safe.

So next time a powerful man is unmasked publicly as an abuser of women—and, make no mistake, there will be plenty more—I have a very small proposition. Rather than asking women to share their stories to prove that this is a scourge, let’s let men be the ones to talk about what they are, or are not, doing to prevent it.