Weinstein scandal creates dialogue on workplace harassment

As the Harvey Weinstein scandal continues to dominate national headlines and new survivors come forward on a near daily basis, some believe the media attention on this case is a tipping point. No doubt the scandal has caused many CEOs, supervisors and human-resources personnel throughout the country to review their policies and talk with employees about sexual harassment and sexual...

As the Harvey Weinstein scandal continues to dominate national headlines and new survivors come forward on a near daily basis, some believe the media attention on this case is a tipping point.

No doubt the scandal has caused many CEOs, supervisors and human-resources personnel throughout the country to review their policies and talk with employees about sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace. So are the times changing?

ASU Now recently spoke with Alesha Durfee, an associate professor of women and gender studies in Arizona State University’s School of Social Transformation, to get her take.

Woman smiling
ASU Professor Alesha Durfee

Question: The Weinstein scandal has led many to believe this will not only have a domino effect in Hollywood regarding reporting sexual harassment, but the American workplace in general. Do you believe that to be the case?

Answer: I absolutely agree that there will be a domino effect on the workplace in general. So many people are coming forward with their stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault under the hashtag #metoo started by Alyssa Milano on Sunday. There has been such a cascade of stories that I think the problem of sexual harassment and sexual assault is going to be too large for most workplaces to ignore.

Q: To give some context, what’s the distinction between sexual harassment, assault and predatory behavior, which has often been attributed to Weinstein?

A: While there are substantial differences between these three forms of violence, I think it’s important to first recognize the common thread between them. Sexual harassment, sexual assault and predatory behavior are all on a spectrum of behavior where one person (in these cases, usually a man) attempts to gain power and control over another person (in these cases, usually a woman). Most people believe that these are motivated by sexual desire, and often people excuse these behaviors in ways that frame them as sexually motivated. However, these are all motivated by a desire to have power and control over another person.

Legally, sexual assault in Arizona is either sexual intercourse or oral sexual contact without consent. However, many advocates would include a wider range of coerced behaviors, including attempted rape, attempted penetration, and unwanted sexual contact such as grabbing or fondling.

Sexual harassment consists of unwelcome sexual comments or behaviors — these can either be specific to the person (i.e., about them) or they can be gender-based (i.e., remarks about women or men in general). When repeated over time by one or more individuals, they can create a hostile work or school environment that can adversely impact the survivor’s ability to work or go to school. Sexual harassment, when perpetuated by individuals in power, can often be linked to job offers, the continuation of employment or promotions. There are two types of sexual harassment — “hostile work environment”, where the sexual harassment makes it extremely difficult for the survivor to go to work or school, and “quid pro quo”, where one’s continued employment or possibilities of promotion are linked to submitting to the sexual demands of the harasser.

Predatory behavior refers to the systemic invocation of power by a “predator” over others to get them to comply with the predator’s demands. While predatory behavior may be sexual, it may also involve physical, financial, verbal, psychological or emotional abuse, as well as stalking in person or via technology.

Q: Weinstein’s behavior continued for decades because of his ability to convince others it would advance their careers if they complied, and damage their careers if they didn’t. Is there a parallel here in regards to common workplaces?

A: Yes, there definitely is a parallel to more common workplaces — when any institution or organization has supervisors or bosses who are not accountable to others for their behavior, that institution has created an environment where a sexual predator could operate without constraint. It is unhealthy to have a workplace where supervisors and bosses are not held accountable for their behaviors and are not routinely evaluated by those that they are in charge of (or by external evaluations or reviews).

Weinstein also had power in a wide range of realms — not only could he threaten women who did not comply with his inappropriate and predatory sexual requests, he could actually follow through with those consequences without having to explain his decisions to anyone. I would strongly argue that companies review their policies and hierarchies to make sure that there is greater accountability of supervisors, bosses, etc. for their decisions and actions.

Q: At ASU, there are policies in place for reporting this type of behavior. What advice would you give to companies that don’t have policies, and what should they do?

A: I applaud all that ASU has done to combat sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. I know a lot of faculty, staff, and administrators have worked very hard to create structures of accountability where people can report violations, and resources for survivors of sexual harassment and sexual assault. 

For survivors and witnesses whose workplaces do not have these structures or provide these resources, I would highly recommend (1) advocating for the adoption of these types of structures and resources in their workplace and/or (2) compiling a list of both legal and community-based resources that survivors and witnesses can utilize if needed. The U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission (www.eeoc.gov) is a good place to start to learn about your employment rights. RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, www.rainn.org, 1-800-656-4673) is an excellent organization that provides information and resources to survivors of sexual violence.


Top photo: Branches of the U.S. military, as well as many private companies, have instituted training on workplace harassment and assault. Photo courtesy of U.S. Army

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Marshall Terrill
marshall.terrill@asu.edu