LOS ANGELES: The Weinstein revelations have once again shone a light on Hollywood’s seedy underbelly – but rampant sexual harassment in the workplace is hardly confined to the glamorous world of show business.
From the cleaning industry to the corporate world, a common thread is bosses or colleagues who abuse positions of authority to coerce their victims, often safe in the knowledge their behaviour can remain hidden.
Show business is particularly vulnerable because of its highly competitive nature and a traditional reliance on personal relations and networking, says Ann Fromholz, a lawyer who specializes in harassment.
“The standards for entry and promotion aren’t strictly on merit, it can be your looks, it may be who you know,” she says, adding: “People who are already in the industry often put up with behaviour they hate because, at least until now, it was the price of admission.”
The Harvey Weinstein scandal illustrates the problem at its most extreme: the disgraced Hollywood producer stands accused by around 40 actresses of sexual misconduct ranging from harassment to assault to rape.
But Fromholz says she has encountered “horror stories” from janitors, farm labourers and restaurant workers too — sectors that in the US are heavily-filled by undocumented workers who fear not only losing their jobs but being deported.
“There is sort of a black humour joke among the employment lawyers, we say that workplaces with beds are really a terrible idea, so that’s talking about hotels and hospitals at the very least,” she adds.
Other typical scenarios revolve around powerful men whose misconduct can go unchecked: high-flying lawyers; Silicon Valley investors who can make or break a business; or celebrated TV personalities like Bill O’Reilly, whose long reign at Fox News was recently brought to a close by an avalanche of harassment claims.
A survey of 2,200 women carried out in 2015 by Cosmopolitan magazine found that one in every three had experienced some form of sexual harassment at work, including unwanted physical or verbal advances and demands for sexual favours.
More than three-quarters said they did not lodge a complaint.
The corridors of government are no exception, with female aides and even legislators subjected to unwanted innuendo and touching.
More than 140 female politicians and staffers from California were moved this week to sign an open letter that said: “Enough. As women leaders in politics, in a state that postures itself as a leader in justice and equality, you might assume our experience has been different. It has not.
“Each of us has endured, or witnessed or worked with women who have experienced some form of dehumanizing behaviour by men with power in our workplaces.”
Experts in the field emphasize that clear workplace policies are essential in creating a healthy culture, with punishments for those who cross the line.
The exact opposite of what has been reported about Weinstein’s contract with the company he co-founded, which, according to TMZ, prevented the firm from sacking him over sexual harassment claims as long as he reimbursed the studio for any lawsuit payouts.
It was tantamount to giving a green light to harassment, says employment lawyer Genie Harrison.
In 1986, the US Supreme Court recognized that sexual harassment was a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that outlawed discrimination based on race, colour, religion, sex, or national origin.
Typical legal cases often involve so-called quid pro quo harassment — the suggestion or demand for sexual favours in return for promotion.
Another frequent complaint is the creation of a hostile work environment through jokes and sexual innuendo, says Harrison.
There is some good news. Over the course of her 23-year career, Fromholz says she has seen positive change, adding: “There certainly is a much larger awareness of what conduct is acceptable or not.”
Genuine workplace romance can continue to exist, but “it’s a hard thing to know when someone is exploring the possibility of dating someone they work with — they have to be more careful than towards someone they meet at a dinner party and it might be an awkward conversation,” says Fromholz, who emphasizes the power equation is critical.
She adds: “The ultimate question is welcomeness”