While many prominent men are facing consequences as they are outed for past sexual harassment, there is another lesson here: Don’t stand by and let women be harassed.
The dam breaking on pent-up frustration and anger over the pervasiveness of sexual harassment of women in industries, environments and cultures that tolerated, even enabled it, is sobering to watch.
All women have these stories, so part of me vicariously enjoys justice for those facing consequences for their abusive behavior even decades later. The public reckoning of so many prominent, successful men will continue. But it should also spur soul-searching for those not directly guilty but who turned a blind eye to the damage.
Lurking in the background are people who knew and failed to act. The lesson now is for employers and colleagues, good men and women, to stand up for their staff members, clients and associates who are under attack. I had a boss who did that for me once.
Indifference is no longer acceptable. 21st Century Fox officials approved an employment contract with serial harasser Bill O’Reilly that had a provision prohibiting his firing “on the basis of an allegation unless that allegation was proved in court,” according to The Washington Post. That high bar likely ensured any claim was settled out of court.
Yvette Vega, Charlie Rose’s executive producer, told The Post that she regrets not having done more when an incident was reported to her. Rose lost his jobs with CBS and PBS after the newspaper reported a pattern of unwanted sexual advances toward several women.
Fortunately, I was never in a quid-pro-quo harassment situation with my livelihood threatened. But I experienced the soul-crushing experiences of inappropriate behavior and sexism.
I was a 24-year-old reporter whose business stories impressed a contest judge enough to invite me in for a job interview in Cleveland. Wearing the most expensive dress I had owned, I was walking from my hotel, excited for the opportunity, when a man grabbed my ass. I reflexively smacked him in the chest with my newspaper and froze.
He scurried away. I gulped down the shock and humiliation, shook it off as best I could, but the thought of that jerk with his gray coat followed me through every conversation that day.
At my first newspaper, someone tacked up a wire photo on our bulletin board of a circus contortionist wearing revealing clothes — my face substituted for hers. I heard the snickers behind me when I discovered it.
And then there was Jack Briggs. The retired Tri-City Herald publisher is the good guy in this story — and that’s important to remember. There are good guys, all around us.
As editor, Jack hired me as a reporter. He was exacting and the kind of boss you didn’t want to disappoint, not because you would get in trouble but because you honestly did not ever want to disappoint Jack. He was unfailingly fair, firm and friendly.
I also felt safe expressing my opinion, which I and a few other women did loudly in the early ’90s over our coverage of the Columbia Cup hydroplane races. The then mostly male photo, sports and editing desk staff produced full-color pages with photos from the races and the sidelines. My beef was the excessive, gratuitous use of bikini shots, some not even identifying the names of the women. “A blonde adorns the shoreline,” said one caption. No Big-J Journalism there.
“There’s some beautiful men out there, fellas,” I would tell them, trying to make a point. “Why don’t we see any of those photos?”
Newsrooms can be rough-and-tumble places. Some men did not like anyone challenging the status of the annual bikini — I mean, hydroplane-racing — edition. (Years earlier and unbeknown to senior management, male staffers would submit photos for an internal “Miss C Cups” contest. You can guess the criteria.)
“Guys can’t take pictures of guys,” someone objected. I remembered someone else bellowing erroneously in the newsroom that “Kate wants a quota!” At the same time, a group of women readers took the Sunday wrap and pasted pictures of male bodies over the female bikini-wearers to make a powerful point.
Soon after, I came in for the early shift and found an article carefully placed on my desk. I can’t remember the exact details, but it was about an outspoken woman getting her comeuppance. The information identifying who printed the story off the wire was cut off. The point was clear: One of my colleagues was trying to intimidate me, trying to put a heel on my neck.
Because Jack was who he is, I took it to him, and he didn’t hesitate. He read the story and listened to the circumstances. He agreed that this was an intimidation attempt, not a joke. He thanked me. That’s right, thanked me for coming to him. A couple of days later he called me into his office.
He had interviewed every person who had worked that previous night. No one confessed. But knowing Jack, whoever did it left fully warned, and all the others had a new understanding about workplace standards.
He had my back — and those guys knew it. Nothing like that happened again.
I called Jack, still living in the Tri-Cities, a few evenings ago and reminded him of the story so long ago.
And this time, I thanked him.