The news is awash with stories of powerful men preying on women at work. After settling a woman’s lawsuit in January for $32 million — an astounding figure — Bill O’Reilly inked a new four-year employment contract with Fox News.
It seems Fox and others have a profound desire not to heed a victim’s story when it might mean losing a revenue-generator like O’Reilly.
Since the recent revelations about film mogul Harvey Weinstein, Amazon Studios’ Roy Price and New Orleans chef John Besh, more than 1.7 million women have tweeted #MeToo to say they also have been victims of sexual harassment or assault, many in the workplace. Is this a moment of enlightenment? A final end to harassment? I’m skeptical, but I believe there are ways we can each help to reduce it.
First, a story.
When I was in grad school in Manhattan, I was having trouble with my desktop computer, and the manufacturer sent a technician to my apartment to help. My four roommates were out. When the tech finished, he asked me to kiss him. I refused. I called his office to report him, but the woman on the phone didn’t believe me.
Months later, as I was graduating and looking for a job, an editor from my former newspaper called unexpectedly. He said he could get me an internship at a prestigious New York newspaper if I would share a bottle of wine with him. I said I would get back to him about that. Later, getting together with some of my colleagues, male and female, who knew him, I told them what he had said. My story was met with uncomfortable silence.
I accepted an internship, instead, at a large West Coast newspaper, and drove my Mitsubishi Colt across the country, where I rented a room in a home where the owner was looking for a couple of tenants. Within a few days, I woke to the sound of my landlord masturbating outside my bedroom door. I froze, and later called police to report him. As I sat in the cruiser giving my report, it became clear that the police officer was mocking me. I left as soon as was politely possible.
I mentioned this incident to an editor at my paper, and he offered to let me stay at his place. I did, for about two weeks. There were just the two of us in the house, and I was wary. But he didn’t try anything, and I was grateful. His kindness allowed me to get on my feet and spend another five years working for that newspaper.
Later, when I mentioned my story to another intern, she said I had been stupid to rent that first room. Perhaps.
It would be nice if that editor’s kindness were the happy ending to my story.
However, I encountered another editor after a while who made comments about women’s breasts and men’s genitals. I told him the comments made me uncomfortable, but they didn’t stop. I discussed his talk with human resources. The woman there said she would counsel my editor, and she advised me to find another job. I did.
Years later, now as a married woman with two children, I reported to another editor who would stop by my desk and make suggestive remarks about my underwear and the state of my marriage. Two colleagues who could overhear said to me, how can you stand that? I just shrugged. The years had taught me that speaking to HR or even to friends wouldn’t elicit justice or even sympathy. I put my energy into finding another job.
Last week, in an op-ed in The New York Times, actress Lupita Nyong’o wrote about her harassment at the hands of Weinstein. “I wish I had known that there were ears to hear me,” she wrote. “That justice could be served. There is clearly power in numbers.”
I wish so, too. When a friend or an employee speaks about this, don’t ignore it. And maybe, offer to put her up, or at least back her up, until she regains her pride and sense of safety.
Anne Michaud is the interactive editor for Newsday Opinion.