Women participate in the Take Back The Workplace March on November 12 in Los Angeles. Like Hollywood, the news industry has been plagued by a cascade of sexual harassment allegations against newsroom leaders

Women participate in the Take Back The Workplace March on November 12 in Los Angeles. Like Hollywood, the news industry has been plagued by a cascade of sexual harassment allegations against newsroom leaders

A good place to start telling the unfolding story of sexual harassment in newsrooms is July 6th, 2016. That’s the day former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson sued Roger Ailes, chairman and CEO of Fox News, saying she was fired in retaliation for rebuffing his sexual advances. Within days Gabriel Sherman, who was working at New York magazine at the time, had heard from about a half dozen other women describing incidents of Ailes’s harassment.

 

Ailes’s behavior toward women at Fox, going back decades, was not a revelation when Carlson sued. Sherman had detailed on-the-record allegations against Ailes in his 2014 biography, “The Loudest Voice in the Room.” Sherman was disappointed those initial allegations were only lightly covered. But something had changed by the time Carlson sued.

“I definitely noticed a marked sea change in the impact of my reporting on Ailes’s harassment after Gretchen Carlson filed her lawsuit,” says Sherman. “Those stories [of other harassment incidents] exploded on social media and were picked up by other news outlets.” Fifteen days after Carlson sued, the Murdoch family forced Ailes to resign.

Carlson’s lawsuit had done what might before have seemed impossible: It brought down a powerful man who many viewed as untouchable. “When we start to look back at this whole thing years from now, what Carlson did will loom very large,” says Washington Post columnist Margaret Sullivan.

It’s not simply about preventing sexual harassment; it’s about also acknowledging that this is often a part of a sexist and unequal work environment

We now know that Fox is far from the only news organization that has very real problems with both sexism and sexual harassment. In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein allegations, a cascade of men in leadership positions at prominent news outlets have fallen—Mark Halperin, Leon Wieseltier, Michael Oreskes, Hamilton Fish. More allegations and revelations come out almost daily—and it’s not just in the U.S. The BBC says it currently has 25 active sexual harassment investigations (up from just a few a year) after leaders explicitly encouraged staff to come forward following the Weinstein story. “This is the predictable outcome of continuing to have newsrooms without gender equity,” says Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard, publisher of Nieman Reports, and former editor of the Chicago Tribune.

The issue facing journalism is not simply about preventing sexual harassment; it’s about also acknowledging that this behavior is often a part of a sexist and unequal work environment. Newsroom cultures need to change in ways that both stop sexual harassment and foster supportive work environments for women.

There’s clearly a lot of work to be done, inside and outside newsrooms. Three months after Carlson came forward, David Fahrenthold and The Washington Post published the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which Donald Trump brags about grabbing women by the pussy. About a dozen women subsequently came forward to say Trump had sexually assaulted them.

Sexual harassment is a persistently common feature of the American workplace. According to a recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, 30 percent of women have experienced unwanted sexual advances at work. A total of about 33 million women in the U.S. say they’ve been sexually harassed—and 14 million say they have been sexually abused—in work-related incidents. Most Americans, 75 percent, consider sexual harassment in the workplace a problem. A year after Trump’s election, “a lot of women have a desire to take some of that power back,” says Jessica Valenti, columnist at The Guardian and author of “Sex Object: A Memoir,” which examines the toll sexism has taken on her life.

As part of the Women’s March the day after Trump’s inauguration, thousands of women donned pink pussy hats as a symbol of defiance to protest Trump’s agenda and the attitude toward women expressed by his “Access Hollywood” remarks. Since the 2016 election, Emily’s List, an organization that trains women to run for public office, says over 20,000 women have reached out in less than a year about running, smashing the previous record of 920 over a two-year period. In November’s local and state elections, women won mayoral races for the first time in cities like Manchester, New Hampshire; Boston elected a record number of women to City Council seats; and 11 of the 16 Democrats who flipped Republican-held seats in the Virginia House of Delegates are women. Employment lawyers are reporting record numbers of calls from potential plaintiffs interested in filing workplace discrimination and sexual harassment claims. “Maybe you can’t get this total asshole out of office, but you can get the total asshole out of your office,” says Valenti.

In addition to Carlson’s suit, part of the explanation for why these allegations are coming to light now has to do with Harvey Weinstein and his celebrity victims. April Reign, a diversity and inclusion expert who created the viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, describes the difference between how Bill Cosby’s victims were seen in 2015 and Weinstein’s victims today: “The media immediately is going to pick up on a celebrity [angle]. Some of Cosby’s victims were famous but perhaps not in the public eye currently. So I think that’s what the distinction is—and it’s unfortunate.”

Alyssa Milano, another celebrity with a huge social media following, ignited the current phase of media attention when she tweeted on October 15: “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” “#metoo gave women and men an immediate sense of solidarity,” says Reign. “You knew that there was already someone out there who had experienced a similar violation. People felt that they were no longer standing alone.”

As of late October, Twitter confirmed that 1.7 million tweets had used the hashtag and 85 countries had at least 1,000 #metoo tweets. Facebook shared that users generated 12 million “me too” posts, comments, and reactions in the first 24 hours, and says that around 45 percent of all U.S. Facebook users have a friend who posted #metoo.

While the press has rightly focused on the misdeeds of prominent men in the media industry, the news industry must also address the less high-profile forms of belittlement, sexism, and harassment many women have come to experience as routine. Denise-Marie Ordway, managing editor of the Journalist’s Resource at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, who worked at regional newspapers for nearly 20 years, was the only woman in the newsroom during her first internship. One day as an intern, her supervisor called her into a small recording room, cornered her, and kissed her on the mouth. She fended him off but spent the internship dealing with constant inappropriate remarks from male colleagues, including one who once demanded to know what color her nipples were.

Participants seen at the Take Back the Workplace March and #MeToo Survivors Rally on November 12 in Hollywood

Participants seen at the Take Back the Workplace March and #MeToo Survivors Rally on November 12 in Hollywood

It was clear to Ordway that this behavior was seen as completely acceptable by all the men around her, so she didn’t know who to raise it with or what to do. Because she was so early in her career, she thought, “I didn’t want to create a problem and not be successful. I tried to just focus on doing my job.” Throughout her reporting career, she had trouble with sources touching her inappropriately or acting as if interviews were actually dates. When she did go to supervisors, they told her to brush it off and toughen up. “I always felt totally unsupported in those situations by my bosses,” Ordway says. “I’d like to think that maybe it would have been different if I’d hadn’t had so few bosses who were women.”

After #metoo posts started pouring in from female journalist colleagues, she realized how common these experiences are for women who work in journalism. And it’s clear that many people in power in news organizations have not been attuned to the endemic nature of this problem, with some men just beginning to be sensitized to the prevalence and consequences of sexual harassment.

Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank wrote a column called “A #metoo for clueless men,” in which he admitted that, until he read about allegations against The New Republic’s Leon Wieseltier, he’d been in a “cone of ignorance” about the sexual harassment that had gone on at his previous workplace. Had Milbank and other male journalists heard about sexual harassment allegations at the time directly from colleagues who had experienced it, they might have brought greater awareness of the scope of the problem as they moved through their careers.

In a 2014 study, researchers at the University of Bielefeld in Bielefeld, Germany showed that understanding the repercussions of rape as well as hearing women’s points of view about sexual harassment lowers sexually aggressive behavior in men and improves empathy for victims. The study, published in the journal Aggressive Behavior, found that when men read a first-person description of sexual harassment from a woman’s perspective (think the flood of #metoo posts), they were less likely to blame the victim and, additionally, they self-reported a lower likelihood of sexually harassing someone themselves than men who read either a neutral description of a case of sexual harassment or one from the perpetrator’s perspective.

“Men have to understand that many of us have come up in male-dominated workplaces. That’s somewhat the situation in newsrooms,” says Kevin Riley, editor the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Every man should visit with the idea that a woman can come to a situation, an opportunity, or a problem with a different perspective than theirs.”

In dealing with any kind of workplace issue, including sexual harassment, Riley sees diverse leadership as an important part of creating a supportive newsroom: “People have to feel like they have someone they can go to who might understand a concern they have. Of course, you would want people to feel comfortable going to any leader at any time with a concern like this. But I think you can do better making sure that you have visible and important leaders that represent a diverse spectrum.”

Researchers found that many men essentially feel it’s not their business to intervene on behalf of women or advocate for gender parity in the workplace

Other research suggests why men might not have stepped up on this issue in the past. In a study published in Organization Science in April, researchers found that many men essentially feel it’s not their business to intervene on behalf of women or advocate for gender parity in the workplace, largely because they believe they do not have the “psychological standing”—they fear they are not legitimate spokespeople—on gender parity issues in the workplace compared to their female coworkers. Often, men can feel like either the issues don’t affect them so it’s not their concern or they are intruding on territory that’s better understood by women.

In an interview on Slate’s DoubleX Gabfest podcast, Franklin Foer, former editor of The New Republic, described why he didn’t act on the accusations against Leon Wieseltier: “Confrontation is hard, I think is part of the grand moral of this entire story. And I wish I shrouded myself in doing the right thing and being confrontational in those instances, but really I was just profoundly uncomfortable.”

Women can also find it difficult to intervene on their own behalfs, and then later regret that other women went on to experience the same thing. “It’s really hard to say what could have been done or should have been done,” says Michelle Cottle, contributing editor at The Atlantic who reported on and told her own stories of Wieseltier’s behavior. “That’s why people feel guilty now, because they’re like, ‘Oh, well, even if it was weird or delicate, I should have just said, ‘Enough’ and put on my big girl pants and done what needed to be done.’ Every time somebody gets taken seriously and every time the signal is sent that this is not the way it’s supposed to be, it makes it easier for the next woman to come forward and say, ‘Well, OK, you did it, and you survived it. I can do this.’”

But there are risks to standing up on your own. Sarah Wildman reported Wieseltier’s behavior while she was a junior staffer, but no one with power took her complaint seriously, and she left the company a few months later.

Sometimes, if rumors about bad behavior are widely known in an organization, a bystander effect can take hold, with people assuming someone else will or should address the problem. A 2016 study of federal court employees in Australia found that the most effective ways for bystanders to actually counteract harassment is if people who witness the behavior immediately call out or report what they see or if people who have high levels of organizational influence intervene. Solely relying on victims to file complaints is an ineffective way to root out the problem, because often they want to avoid confrontation and don’t want to risk retaliation. A 2003 study of U.S. public sector employees, published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology, said 66 percent of employees experience retaliation after reporting workplace mistreatment.

Going forward, men pleading ignorance is not an option. “So much of media is still controlled by men, and men still are most of the decision-makers at the top,” says The Guardian’s Valenti. “What we’re seeing reflected in the media is men’s awakening. Feminist media has been covering this for a very long time.”

Some of that awakening has to do with the “shitty media men list,” created by a group of industry women who anonymously compiled lists of grievances against men in the media. Allegations range from non-specific “sexual harassment,” physical violence, and rape to creepy messages and abusive language. The list’s existence was first acknowledged in the press by BuzzFeed on October 12. Few news organizations are precisely detailing how they are assessing accusations of sexual harassment, but Vox Media has given a bit of insight into its process of dealing with a public accusation.

“There is a corporate system in place that has kept this epidemic of harassment hidden from the public.” —Gabriel Sherman, special correspondent for Vanity Fair

In a November memo to staff, provided to Nieman Reports by Vox Media, CEO Jim Bankoff detailed how the company handled its investigation into allegations made by a former employee in a Medium post against editorial director Lockhart Steele. Vox Media hired a specialty law firm that interviewed approximately 20 current and former employees, finding more than one of example of unacceptable behavior. Steele was subsequently terminated for cause. Being transparent with staff about the investigation sent a signal to everyone—potential harassers and possible future victims—about how the company will respond.

As Paul Farhi reported in The Washington Post, many women at NPR were incensed that Michael Oreskes was kept in his post while sexual harassment allegations swirled around him. Since his firing, staffers have raised adjacent issues, including the use of temps and interns. Most full‑time reporters and editors are members of the SAG‑AFTRA union. But NPR, in common with many other newsrooms, employs many interns and temporary workers, who do not have the same protections as staff.

“People who are temps and interns are particularly vulnerable and seem to skew heavily towards being young women,” says Marilyn Geewax, senior business editor at NPR. “There’s been a lot of internal discussion among women about how the extensive use of interns and temps in the news industry puts many young women in particularly vulnerable positions. How do we make people in precarious positions know that they shouldn’t have to be subjected to this? NPR is looking at not just the idea that there’s one bad apple, but at how do we make a barrel that is safer.”

Apart from the physical, emotional, and psychological trauma it causes, sexual harassment may also factor in to women’s decisions to leave the industry altogether. While financial instability and family responsibilities have been identified as reasons women leave, there’s been little or no research on sexual harassment as a reason for attrition. “The saddest thing about these stories is women who say, inevitably, ‘I retreated,’” says the Nieman Foundation’s Lipinski. “It’s clear that for a lot of individuals a sexual harassment situation is untenable. You can’t stay. My guess is a lot of women have left in the wake of this abuse.”

Part of the solution: Put more women in newsroom leadership positions.

Margaret Sullivan thinks institutions should stop and look at themselves and make systemic changes, such as more women in leadership and pay equity. There are currently ongoing public disputes over unequal pay at the Detroit Free Press, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. She cites past precedents of how in the wake of flawed reporting on WMDs, newspapers more closely regulated the use of anonymous sources. When journalists largely missed the political, social, and economic discontent that fueled Trump’s election, newsrooms refocused coverage on under-reported issues and populations. Why should dealing with sexual harassment be any different?

In a 2014 cover story, Nieman Reports documented the lack of women reaching management and leaderships roles in journalism—and the impact that has on coverage. In my Nieman Reports cover story this summer, I detailed the challenges women face in the newsroom when becoming mothers and how lack of support and workplace flexibility may be a cause of women’s attrition. Women’s leadership at newspapers has remained between 32 and 39 percent for the past 25 years, with many newer news outlets also lacking gender and racial diversity. “It’s going to be really hard to move anything forward that fully addresses sexual harassment with the demographic constructions we currently have in newsrooms,” says Lipinski.

The value of women at the top is not only to shape coverage, but also to shape culture. “If women are at the very top of the food chain they can exert influence, be role models, and provide encouragement and a place to turn,” says the Post’s Sullivan. “It could help create a culture where there’s less tolerance for sexual harassment. It’s not a panacea, but I think it would have an influence.”

Going forward, men pleading ignorance is not an option

Having more gender diversity among top management and more responsive formal reporting structures for harassment will only work if victims feel that their concerns are truly heard and acted on. According to the ABC News/Washington Post poll, 92 percent of women who have experienced harassment say they think men usually get away with it. That’s a big hurdle companies must overcome to create trust and make up for past experiences when grievances were overlooked or actively silenced.

Not surprisingly, sexual harassment in the workplace is negatively correlated with job satisfaction. Researchers at the University of Calgary meta-analyzed data from over 41 studies—with nearly 70,000 respondents—related to workplace sexual harassment to examine the consequences, which range from poor physical and mental health to withdrawing from work. The analysis, published in Personnel Psychology in 2007, found that toxic work environments stemming from harassment have lower productivity and morale, increased use of sick days, and higher turnover—for all employees, not just those experiencing harassment. This cost of harassment to businesses doesn’t even factor in legal fees or settlement costs if an employee takes action against a company.

Newsrooms “are under enough pressure in this day and age that we need to make sure that every single person in our organization can contribute and can be part of a really effective organization,” says the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Riley. “Anyone who is made to feel uncomfortable is not going to be able to do that. That’s just a common sense way to look at it.”

Women take part in the "Day Without a Woman" march on March 8—International Women's Day—in New York

Women take part in the "Day Without a Woman" march on March 8—International Women's Day—in New York

The mandatory 30-minute sexual harassment HR video has become a bit of a punchline as an ineffective way to deal with this problem. Former employment attorney Lynne Eisaguirre, whose company Workplaces that Work conducts workplace trainings, says the most effective instruction around sexual harassment is highly interactive and in-person. “We make participants practice doing an intervention with specific behavior, and then also to practice receiving a complaint,” says Eisaguirre. A 2015 study conducted by Fredericksburg, Va.-based University of Mary Washington researchers found that men thought their male peers wouldn’t support them in confronting sexist behaviors, and lacked experience in how to do so. Eisaguirre’s role-playing gives people specific tools so they know how to react in real-world situations.

Eisaguirre believes creating a “complaint-friendly environment” is critical, so people aren’t afraid to raise real issues with their bosses, and leaders also have a responsibility to intervene when they see or hear about a problem. “I get pushback on this,” Eisaguirre says. “People say, ‘If something’s just a rumor, I can’t do anything about that.’ Well, if you heard a rumor that somebody was bringing a loaded gun into the workplace, would you look into it? I think you would.”

The value of women at the top is not only to shape coverage, but also to shape culture

Media companies getting out in front of this issue are proactively looking at how to improve newsroom culture for everyone. In addition to hiring an outside law firm to investigate Lockhart Steele’s behavior, Vox Media told staff it was addressing issues adjacent to workplace sexual harassment, such as a continued push for diversity and inclusion at all levels of the company, better on-boarding, mandatory trainings for employees and managers, tightening policies around alcohol at company events, and providing clarity to employees regarding consensual relationships among coworkers. CEO Bankoff said there will be an update on the status of their efforts in 90 days.

One impediment to tackling sexual harassment is the proliferation of nondisclosure agreements. Created largely to help companies protect intellectual property and trade secrets, companies are attempting to apply them to all experiences at a workplace, including bad working conditions or illegal abuses. In the media and beyond, employee severance packages and settlements are also now often paired with nondisparagement agreements, which prevents an employee from saying anything negative about his or her former employer. These types of agreements were widely used as part of settlements at Fox News involving Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly. These tactics make it much easier for companies to settle harassment claims with no press attention while typically admitting no wrongdoing, firing a perpetrator, or making any company changes.

“There is a corporate system in place, enforced through contracts and legal means, that has kept this epidemic of harassment hidden from the public,” says Sherman, who is now a special correspondent for Vanity Fair. “There is a system of enablers that powerful men set up to protect this abhorrent behavior and also silence women from speaking out. There’s still a lot of reporting to be done about the way corporate America enforces nondisclosure agreements and uses legal and HR departments to cover up sexual harassment in the workplace.”

Orly Lobel, an author and law professor at University of San Diego, explains that many of these agreements may not be actually enforceable in court, especially if the plaintiff is sharing information with coworkers or aiding an investigation. But often the order’s enforceability may not be fully known until a company countersues. It’s a risk few harassment victims are eager to take, so nondisparagement agreements may effectively work as an intimidation tactic. “We’ve just seen this used as a tool to chill the speech,” says Lobel.

Silicon Valley has come under scrutiny for its use of these agreements, and media companies deserve to come under scrutiny, too. “The use of these agreements is particularly egregious in newsrooms,” says Lipinksi. “Our job is to give voice to the voiceless, and bring forth abuses, not silence our own colleagues.”

New York, California, and New Jersey are all now currently considering legislation to make it explicitly illegal to create nondisparagement agreements around harassment and discrimination allegations. This legislation would also nullify previous agreements, which could open up further waves of allegations. While doing away with the status quo settlement structure could make it much harder for individual women to receive payouts, Lobel says, “We need to be thinking about the public policy implications of this, and the public’s right to know, coworker’s right to know, and the prevention aspect of [changing the law] and not just individual damages. We need to think about the broader picture of a safer and fairer work environment.” Lobel believes legislative change, along with companies publicly announcing they will no longer use nondisparagement agreements, would go a long way toward rooting out abuse.

“It’s really easy to fire someone,” Valenti says. “It’s not so easy to change the entire workplace culture.”

Part of the hard work of challenging sexism and harassment involves male leaders willing to look closely at their own behavior. This can mean finding new ways to challenge business as usual. Are men given leadership titles for projects when it’s women who are doing most of the heavy lifting? Is a dad who leaves work early for a kid’s soccer game given a pat on the back, while a woman who has to stay home with a sick baby is met with an eye roll?

“It’s really easy to fire someone. It’s not so easy to change the entire workplace culture.” —Jessica Valenti, author of Sex Object: A Memoir

“Men need to take an active and conscious effort and make sure that the women and more vulnerable people in their workspaces feel valued and appreciated and know that their work matters,” says Marin Cogan, a contributor to New York magazine who wrote a widely shared New York Times op-ed about workplace gender dynamics. “This is something male leaders should be thinking about every day. It’s time for men to do this kind of emotional labor and think very carefully about this stuff.”

The 2017 Organization Science study on men’s psychological standing regarding gender issues also­ found that, while men often feel they aren’t legitimate spokespeople for raising issues around gender injustice in the workplace, when they do speak up it can have a greater impact than when women do. The study concluded that for men to fully participate in gender parity initiatives in workplaces—like committees to address sexual harassment, efforts to recruit and retain more women, or advocacy work for better family leave policies—they have to be explicitly invited to participate. Otherwise, male participants in the study asked about volunteering for such initiatives felt it wasn’t their place to get involved.

So, to all the media men out there who think it’s time for change, consider yourself invited.

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