Men who use their power to harass or intimidate women know how hard it is to expose them
If there’s a woman who hasn’t experienced some form of sexual harassment in her working life, I’m yet to meet her. Women talk about the men who do this in our professions and at our workplaces. We quietly send information into the network of our working sisters in an attempt to restrain and contain the reach of the tentacles of the harassers, the pests, the creepers and the gropers.
“Don’t be alone with him”, “don’t sit next to him”, “don’t give him your mobile number”, “don’t drink at lunch with him”, “do you want me to come with you while you meet with him?”. We know who they are. We spend time and energy strategising around necessary interaction. We make ourselves smaller to avoid them and conduct ourselves in ways to minimise their impact.
So for many women watching the train wreck that is the Weinstein takedown, the modus operandi, if not the specific behaviour, is tediously familiar. So too the allegations here in Australia about TV gardener Don Burke are reflective of the experience of too many women. Even if the allegations against Burke are not on the same scale of seriousness as Weinstein (Burke is not accused of rape), the character behind the alleged behaviour is familiar.
The exploitation of power, and the enormous risk an attempt at exposure presents to the victims of it, are at the heart of the confidence a perpetrator is emboldened by. Those are the key dynamics here that are not fixed overnight by the magnitude of attention paid to the Weinstein and Burke allegations. I am wary of a response to these two specific situations that points to them as evidence that women are now, or should be, more likely or more confident to come forward.
These situations, while recognisable in terms of the alleged behaviour, are not instructive for the woman sitting at work today while her male colleague makes her squirm with unwanted sexual innuendo or contact. Susan answering the phone at a transport company on a six-month contract whose boss comments on her cleavage and “great legs” shouldn’t somehow feel emancipated from her situation because Gwyneth Paltrow said something similar happened to her.
What is common to both the Weinstein and Burke allegations is that there are a number of complainants, which provides safety in numbers and an air of credibility. These women, while absolutely out on a limb, are not out there on that limb by themselves. That’s comforting for complainants and for a public who might have otherwise been sceptical. There is also, importantly, the removal of immediate risk for the complainants now coming forward – both from the behaviour itself and significantly, from immediate financial ruin.
In Weinstein’s case, many of the women who reported abuse are now celebrated Hollywood actors and figures with the financial means to still put food on the table. In Burke’s case, he is not the figure in the industry he once may have been. He’s an old bloke in a cardigan who was once on TV a fair bit.
That immediate risk is a huge factor in what stopped those numerous complainants from speaking out, reporting, or going public when the behaviour actually occurred. There is also the public profile that Weinstein and Burke command which means reporting this behaviour is “news”. I’m fairly confident that if Susan from the transport company makes a report to human resources (if there is a human resources person) and contacts the media about the behaviour of her boss, it won’t make the front pages.
I don’t mean to take away at all from any of the horrendous experiences that the alleged victims of Weinstein and Burke report they had but we must be realistic about the circumstances that exist now that have provided the climate and the ability for these women to take the brave steps they have.
We must be realistic when we tell other working women, women who are not in Hollywood, or who are making an allegation about a man with no public profile, or who don’t speak English as their first language, or who might be working casually, that these situations are a “game changer” for them in dealing with sexual harassment in their own workplace. They aren’t. Susan still has to go in tomorrow to answer the phones because she has bills to pay and is in insecure work.
Sexual harassment is wrong. No woman should ever have to put up with it. But not every woman has the luxury of risking her paycheck by speaking up. We women know the risk because that network of working women tells us so and we’ve seen it happen.
We should be acutely conscious of that risk when we rally women post-Weinstein with our feminist–you-go-girl pom poms to “speak up” – because without fixing the systems that prop up perpetrator behaviour, everyday working women may end up out on that limb by themselves with unemployment, unpaid bills, and no one interested in their story for their brave efforts.