My friend actress Lisa Rose was 22 when, in 1988, she got an admin job at the London office of Miramax, the company founded by Harvey Weinstein and his brother Bob. Fresh out of drama school, she was excited to be working with producers, going to screenings in Soho and delivering scripts to the likes of Daniel Day-Lewis.
And, although colleagues had warned her about Weinstein’s reputation, before she met him for the first time she remembers thinking, “I must make a good impression; maybe he’ll help me get an acting job.”
The encounter happened around six weeks after she began working at Miramax. Weinstein was in town for a couple of days and Lisa was sent to work from the Savoy where he was staying . “When you got taken to the Savoy, you knew you’d meet him. I was told he’d answer the door in a towel and would ask me for a massage. I was told to say no, to ignore him, and to walk away so I didn’t get too close.”After arriving at the hotel by taxi, events unfolded exactly as predicted. “I was alone in the room with Harvey, and he asked me to rub his back,” says Lisa. “But because I’d been forewarned, I said no and immediately moved to a suite room from where I could see the door. He huffed a bit and said, ‘well, other people give me a massage’, but he didn’t touch me. I was very scared, but when I talked about it afterwards, people just giggled really. Or said things like, ‘well, that sort of thing just goes on.’”
Over in Cardiff, that sort of thing of was certainly going on for me. I was 20 and back in my home-town hoping to clear the £600 overdraft I had racked up during my second year at Manchester University. I’d landed a bar job at a swanky, new watering hole in the Welsh capital that paid, I will always remember, £2.45 an hour: I calculated that, if I worked full-time for the next six weeks, I could clear what felt like an enormous debt before going back up north and starting my final year.
I did clear the debt, but there was a trade-off. Just before I was about to do my first shift, the bar owner, Dai, a man in his late 40s, summoned that evening’s staff and told us sit on the stools along the customer side of the bar. He wanted to prep us for the evening’s work, he said. There was a rugby match on in town, and he was expecting a lively drinking crowd after it. He introduced me as the new bartender and then, apropos nothing, came and stood in front of me, parted my trousered legs and, roaring with laughter, started thrusting theatrically. “Show those boys a good time,” he guffawed. The others giggled and looked a bit embarrassed, but no one said anything.
Over the course of the next few weeks, my boss would grope my breasts, pinch my bottom and make lewd comments about my appearance. It was always done in public, and always with a chortle. His advances were unwanted and made me feel uncomfortable, but when I told him to back off, he would upbraid me for being an uptight, middle-class student, and say if I didn’t want to be hit on, I shouldn’t work in a bar.
So, I put up with it. I was a young woman and I didn’t really understand how wrong my boss’s behaviour was, or how I should deal with it. And, of course, I needed Dai’s wages and the punters’ tips to clear the overdraft that hung like a millstone around my neck.
The young actresses Weinstein allegedly bullied or coerced into sex also felt they needed something from him. Like me, they effectively accepted the immunity society affords powerful men. From the five-star hotel rooms of Sundance and Cannes, to small-town bars of South Wales, the toxic power dynamic that enables women to be sexually harassed at work is the same.
So, when The Big Bang Theory’s Mayim Bialik argues in response to the #metoo social media campaign — a hashtag which aims to illustrate anyone can be the victim or sexual harassment — that women are harassed on a hierarchical tier according to how attractive they are and how they dress, I think she is wrong.
Similarly, when Woody Allen who has worked with the disgraced media mogul and who, given the allegations he has faced about his own personal life, should arguably have kept shtum about the Weinstein scandal, expressed concern about a “Salem atmosphere, where every guy in an office who winks at a woman is suddenly having to call a lawyer”, I think he is wrong, too.
More to the point, so do the lawyers. Louise Taft, employment solicitor at Freemans Solicitors, puts it like this: “Anyone who has behaved professionally in the workplace has nothing to worry about. It is only when a professional line is overstepped that you need worry about having fallen foul of the law.”
The key word in all this is, she says, “unwanted” —“The 2010 Equality Act brings together all legislation pertaining to discrimination and it states there is unwanted conduct if it violates the complainant’s dignity, or creates an intimidating, hostile, degrading or humiliating environment for him or her. A mere compliment about, say, appearance wouldn’t, in my view, be found to be harassment.”So, what should you do when a man’s behaviour at work makes you feel humiliated or intimidated? “First of all, ask him to stop, say that it makes you feel uncomfortable,” says Taft. “A culture of sexual banter exists in many offices, but if it makes you feel awkward, you must say so. You can take the person aside and explain how you feel. Or, if it feels easier, ask another colleague to speak on your behalf.”
Rebecca Emmett of Rebecca Emmett Employment Law concurs. “Challenge unwanted behaviour as soon as it happens. All too often, we live with behaviour that is unwanted for months, even years, for fear of being branded a trouble-maker. Plus, the harasser may not always realise their conduct is unwanted. They may think they are paying a compliment.”
If you don’t feel comfortable with a direct challenge, speak to the person’s manager or to HR, says Emmett. “Ideally, things will be resolved informally. But if they are not, or the harassment is serious, use the company’s grievance procedure to raise a formal grievance. And, as hard as it might be, provide as much information such as written records, photos and recordings, as possible. Your employer cannot take any action unless they can investigate properly and that means having facts. You can take a colleague with you to the hearing and some employers allow a family member or friend instead. If you are not happy with the outcome of the grievance, appeal it.”
If the harassment continues, seek legal advice, says Emmett. “You may have claims against your employer and against the individual doing the harassing.”
And if you witness someone else being harassed, react, says writer Meg Rosoff. “Just because it isn’t happening to you, doesn’t mean it’s not your problem. If you don’t stand up, you’re a bad person, you’re complicit. When I worked in advertising, I registered an informal complaint against a creative director who had a habit of verbally abusing female creative teams. I was 40, pregnant and desperately needed my salary and impending maternity leave.
“The next morning, there was a threatening letter on my desk from the company’s lawyers. I was terrified, and said nothing more. I wish I had because a few months later I was sacked anyway. But 20 years later, at least I have some self-respect. Unlike my colleagues. We all knew what was going on, but not one of them stood by me.”
Sigal Avin who made a series of short films with Friends star David Schwimmer called Zematrid, Hebrew for It’s Harassment, believes the Weinstein scandal means more of us will stand up from now on.
“It feels like a point of no return. I think powerful men will be far more afraid to exercise their power in a cynical way, and more women are aware that sexual harassment is just not on. I believe a code of silence has been broken.”
Some women have never been silent in the face of sexual harassment. Another friend of mine, Amber, is one of only a handful of women at a company that employs around 1,000 people. Last year, she won multiple awards for sales. But her celebrations were spoiled when a colleague told her that another man had claimed Amber had given him her room number at the hotel where they were staying, and invited him to join her there.
“It was a lie, and I was furious,” says Amber. “I felt it was a way of trying to bring me down, of punishing female success. When I saw the guy in the hotel’s coffee shop with the rest of our team the next morning, I decided to confront him in public. ‘I don’t want you anywhere near me or my bedroom, so why exactly did you lie and tell Gary that I’d asked you to come to my room?’
“He looked really embarrassed and mumbled something about a joke. I told him it wasn’t funny, and not to dare lie about me in the future. I feel a direct and public put-down is a good way of pointing out unacceptable behaviour. But many women don’t do it because they fear it makes them look too aggressive. Or because they fear that, when the unwanted behaviour comes from powerful men, it’ll be used against them in the future.”
Let’s hope that #metoo will make that fear go away.