Editor’s Note: Brigid Schulte is the director of the Better Life Lab at New America and author of “Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion articles on CNN.
When GOP supporters of now-confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh attempted to explain away allegations of sexual assault as harmless teenage “horseplay,” as if sexual violence is part of a rite of passage, they were choosing to believe a powerful false narrative that “boys will be boys.”
When, two years ago Sunday, a video emerged of Donald Trump bragging that he could grab women by their private parts, those who supported him endorsed his claim that it was meaningless “locker room talk.”
And when President Trump and others mocked Christine Blasey Ford and dismissed her allegations because she waited decades before going public, they, too, were buying into a powerful and uninformed myth that traumatized targets of sexual harassment and violence make prompt reports.
In fact, a majority of sexual assaults are never reported to police. A newly released analysis of the prevalence and factors that drive sexual harassment across all industries that I authored, along with my colleagues at the Better Life Lab at New America, found that workplace sexual harassment is pervasive – like wallpaper that becomes so familiar people don’t even see it anymore. And that few targets, male or female, speak of or complain about it.
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports that 87 to 94% of those who experience sexual harassment don’t file a formal complaint. Some are forced into arbitration or sign nondisclosure agreements.
Others, rightly, fear what making a complaint will mean for them: One 2003 study found that nearly three-fourths of those filing complaints were retaliated against. (Blasey Ford, who said she was “terrified” to come forward, was right to be afraid. She was not only met with death threats, but with a hostile crowd at a campaign rally in Mississippi, whipped up by the president of the United States.
Sexual harassment, at its core, is driven by power imbalance – with those who have it preying on those who don’t. But it is also fueled by false narratives we tell ourselves and the destructive myths we choose to believe – and ignore at our peril in this #MeToo moment, marking its one-year anniversary amid the painful and divisive Kavanaugh chapter in our national discourse on sex, gender and power.
My own story pales in comparison to the wave of pain and humiliation unleashed by the #MeToo movement of women and other targets sharing stories of horrific sexual harassment, assault, abuse of power and misogyny. As a national correspondent based in Washington in my 30s, an editor once pinched me on the cheek in front of our publisher and said something like “We love reporters like you. You’re so insecure you’ll do anything we say.”
The men laughed. I, shamefaced, diminished and humiliated, slunk back to my desk and tried to forget about it.
In my case, what kept me silent after being so knocked off balance was another damaging and far too pervasive story: the myth of the Good Girl. I didn’t want to make a fuss, cause trouble for anyone or be seen as someone who couldn’t hack a little macho newsroom ribbing.
And, at heart, like so many good girls, I worried that the remark was meant to put me in my rightful place: that maybe I didn’t belong, wasn’t good enough, or, that, as some male colleagues whispered about some of us women (male colleagues who never once had their cheeks pinched, heads patted or had been repeatedly called “kiddo”) that I had been hired not on my own merit, but because of some gender quota.
The myths and narratives like these that sustain our culture of sexual harassment are pervasive, toxic and cross lines of industry, region, race and class.
Our research found that in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, the arts, media and other male-dominated, white collar environments, the so-called “Myth of the Creative Genius” excuses bad behavior, keeps alleged abusers like Harvey Weinstein in power and creates an entire infrastructure of silence, willful ignorance and complicity.
The myth, like most myths, is not only wrong-headed, it’s simply wrong. Michael Schur, for one, understands that he doesn’t need bad-behaved “geniuses” to be successful. The TV producer, writer and actor has a “no jerks” policy, which, one assumes, would cover sexual harassing behavior, and has been part of creating some of the most successful and innovative TV shows like “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” and “The Good Place.”
Narratives that rainmakers, superstars and high performers are so valuable they must be protected at all costs, regardless of bad behavior, has not only fostered toxic work environments and kept women and other targets out of power, or sidelined, but has also actually cost organizations dearly in lost productivity, morale and talent.
Research collected by an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission task force under the Obama administration found that avoiding toxic workers can save a company more than twice as much as what a top performer can produce.
Female-dominated, “pink collar” workplaces often operate under the myth that they are oases free from sexual harassment, when in fact, our analysis showed that’s far from the truth. Nearly 40% of employed women in the US work in occupations that are majority women, like education, health care and retail. Yet those in power in these work environments – principals, doctors, supervisors, managers – are far more likely to be men, a phenomenon known as “vertical segregation.”
Another widely believed myth – that sexual harassment comes only from above – is simply not true. The current legal standard plays into that myth: a perpetrator must have hiring or firing power over a victim before a victim can make a legal claim of sexual harassment. But harassment can often come from third parties like customers or clients.
Harassing colleagues or managers without direct hiring and firing responsibilities can create hostile work environments. Restaurant workers who earn sub-minimum wages and rely on tips to make ends meet can’t afford to challenge harassing customers. And the American Bar Association’s Commission on Women in the Profession reported that one-half to two-thirds of women lawyers experienced or observed sexual harassment – not only by colleagues and bosses, but by judges, clients, court personnel and other lawyers.
Blue-collar environments often operate under the myth that crude and lewd behavior just comes with the territory. In court documents, Judith Vollmar, a machine operator and one of a handful of women who worked at a manufacturing plant in Pennsylvania, complained of a workplace riddled with sexually explicit images, degrading signs, co-workers who would leer at her, make lewd, sexist comments, and call her a bitch “several times a week.”
She was also frequently told she didn’t know what she was doing when it came to the work. In seeking to dismiss her case, the company argued that such behavior was typical in blue-collar environments. Just the way things are. A federal district court judge disagreed, writing, “That a particular workplace is considered ‘blue collar’ – whatever that is supposed to mean – does not absolve an employer of fostering a workplace hostile for female employees.”
At the most fundamental level, sexual harassment is driven by the stories we tell ourselves and what we choose to believe about gender roles, about who should do what and who belongs where in our society.
The outdated narrative that the world of work, of leadership and power, belongs to men, and that the domain of home and children are a woman’s primary responsibility, that the ideal worker is solely devoted to work and has no life outside of it, fuels work cultures where someone’s gender can be used as a weapon to show they aren’t welcome and can’t do the job, whether it’s women in the corner office, the factory floor, law enforcement or in combat, or men taking on nursing or caregiving jobs.
Denial – thinking that sexual harassment doesn’t happen that much, isn’t a big deal, that Blasey Ford’s allegations don’t matter anymore now that Kavanaugh has been confirmed, or that victims should ignore it or worse, should assume they’ve brought it on themselves – is perhaps the most pernicious and destructive myth of them all. It’s the one our President endorses when it comes to allegations of his own sexual misconduct.
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These myths, like all myths, are lies. And until we all stop being blinded by them, and begin to tell ourselves truer, more complete stories of what it means to be human, and how to treat one another with civility and respect, then the sexual harassment already so deeply woven into the fabric of every industry, in every sector will only continue to trap, limit, harm and diminish us all.