This Monday, I played the audio of a call that defense attorney Mark Reichel received shortly after taking on the defense of one of the Picnic Day defendants. The interns at our weekly meeting were listening to the lady rant with a lot of interest, but when she said the “n-word” every single one of them loudly gasped.
I actually had to bite my tongue to keep from laughing at their response. They weren’t expecting it, and it was a shock to hear such language, because in most circles racism or racially charged language of this sort is off limits.
I juxtapose that response to the text that a friend of mine sent me later that evening. My friend is a respectable business woman trying to make a living in a tough field. She related some conversations she had with colleagues, and her treatment which focused less on her qualifications and more on her characteristics.
Apparently in some circles this kind of behavior is the norm. Last year voters elected the president despite a wave of women coming forward to complain about sexual harassment and the explosive hot mic moment catching Mr. Trump talking about grabbing women in their genitalia.
In the wake of some scandals in Silicon Valley, Salon Magazine ran a story entitled “Silicon Valley’s sexism problem.” Multiple executives and venture capitalists from big startup companies had to resign from their firms in the wake of sexual harassment claims.
Beyond the specifics, the Salon article reports, “Sexism and sexual harassment appears to be systemic in the tech industry, which has made headlines repeatedly for workplace issues involving mistreatment of women or outright sexual harassment.”
CNNMoney reports, “Silicon Valley’s power dynamics don’t favor women and minorities. Investors tend to be white men: 89% of those making investment decisions at the top 72 firms are male, according to one industry survey. Many women have said they fear retaliation if they speak out about inappropriate behavior.”
The article reports that “across the tech industry, there are some glaring problems that have allowed sexism to fester beneath the surface.”
They note that gag orders and non-disparagement clauses are common which “prevent people from speaking out about the inner workings of a company, including talking about the behavior of former coworkers or bosses.”
They write, “The agreements themselves are common in the workplace, but they’re especially problematic in an industry that’s overwhelming white and male — especially if they’re used to sweep harassment allegations under the rug.”
They also point to the fact that the relationship between “entrepreneurs and investors is inherently nontraditional. There’s no formal employer-employee relationship, and there are often many meetings before a deal is signed. It’s not uncommon for those meetings to be at bars over drinks. Entrepreneurs often say they take whatever time they can get with well-known investors.”
But while the tech industry may have particular problems, they are not alone here.
Think Progress published a story in early July that detailed sexual harassment in the sciences. The site reports on survey data that found, “Women, and particularly women of color, working within the astronomical and planetary sciences are vastly more likely than their male colleagues to experience a hostile work environment based on their race or gender.”
The New York Times column in April in the wake of the latest sexual harassment scandal at Fox noted, “Employers, judges and juries often use women’s failure to report harassment as evidence that it was not a problem or that plaintiffs had other motives. But only a quarter to a third of people who have been harassed at work report it to a supervisor or union representative, and 2 percent to 13 percent file a formal complaint, according to a meta-analysis of studies by Lilia Cortina of the University of Michigan and Jennifer Berdahl of the University of British Columbia Sauder School of Business.”
Another New York Times article shows that a large percentage of people are wary of having private work meetings with colleagues of the opposite sex.
The article notes, “The results show the extent to which sex is an implicit part of our interactions. They also explain in part why women still don’t have the same opportunities as men. They are treated differently not just on the golf course or in the boardroom, but in daily episodes large and small, at work and in their social lives.”
And so while the news about Uber and Fox News and Silicon Valley shows the cautionary side of women being alone with men, the flipside is harmful to women.
To me, then, there are multiple problems here. First, there is a power asymmetry that allows men to continue to act in inappropriate ways. Second, there is a cultural issue that seems to look the other way when they do so, more often than not. Third, there are too many industries that are male-dominated, which leave women vulnerable to these power asymmetries.
These tend to reinforce the patterns. For example, women interviewed at Fox News said that they did not file complaints because they feared retaliation or being fired. And some do not report the problem because they don’t believe their experience qualifies as sexual harassment.
The Times reported, “An analysis of 55 representative surveys found that about 25 percent of women report having experienced sexual harassment, but when they are asked about specific behaviors, like inappropriate touching or pressure for sexual favors, the share roughly doubles. Those numbers are broadly consistent with other survey findings.”
As the Times put it in their article, “One reason women stall professionally, research shows, is that people have a tendency to hire, promote and mentor people like themselves. When men avoid solo interactions with women — a catch-up lunch or late night finishing a project — it puts women at a disadvantage.”
For many they feel, if they cannot meet the boss one-on-one, they do not get the face time needed to show that they deserve the next promotion.
And so sexual harassment becomes a barrier for women to be able to advance professionally. I view the comments made to my friend as not harmless, but a way to degrade and dismiss her professional abilities. As long as we continue to tolerate such conduct, it will continue.
—David M. Greenwald reporting