The crash and burn of Harvey Weinstein produced shock, rage and a hashtag. But, this is just an event. An event without action remains an event, not a movement and not a change. While many question how Mr. Weinstein’s behavior continued for decades, the better question is, will this continue? History shows it will. The culture of sexual harassment in the workplace has some parallels with the civil rights struggle that can provide lessons learned and a path forward.

In 1863, the emancipation proclamation by Abraham Lincoln freed the slaves. In 1865, the 13th amendment abolished slavery. In July of 1868 and the 14th amendment, gave African Americans due process and equal protection under the law. In February of 1870, the 15th Amendment granted African American us the right to vote. But, what followed is a lawless, shameful, embarrassing and uncomfortable history.

The southern democrats began enacting “Jim Crow” laws in 1877 to separate the black and white races, “separate but equal.” From a historical perspective, this was a backlash against laws granting rights and citizenship. Fast forward to 1957, the Little Rock Nine were 9 black students who were blocked from entering Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas by orders of Arkansas Governor Orval Fabus to prevent integration. President Eisenhower sent federal troops and the National Guard to intervene on behalf of the students. This was an open defiance of laws by government officials and a heinous event where 9 children waiting to enter a school who were spat on by angry protesters. Would anyone want that for their child?

Today we’d like to think we’re done with this. There are times when racist comments are discounted, “well, you know, that generation,” or “that’s the way it used to be.” Slavery ended over 150 years ago people. “That generation” is no longer alive. Treating people with a lack of humanity is wrong and if that is how people were taught and raised, it’s wrong. Reality and civil rights have been tenuous at best which lead to the civil rights act of 1964 which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. Sixteen years later the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) stated that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination prohibited by Title VII of the civil rights act of 1964.

More than 100 U.S. Navy and United States Marine Corps aviation officers were alleged to have sexually assaulted 83 women and 7 men, at the Las Vegas Hilton in Las Vegas, Nevada took place at the 35th Annual Tailhook Association Symposium from September 8 to 12, 1991. Shannon Faulkner, the first girl to enter the Citadel on August 15, 1995, was met with anger, death threats and protests. She started her first day with the escort of United States Marshals. The home of her parents was sprayed repeatedly with graffiti and her parents also received death threats. She voluntarily resigned, citing emotional and psychological abuse and physical exhaustion at the end of the first week. The male cadets celebrated her departure. This behavior was atrocious and it was in 1995. Again, we’re talking about a kid going to school with threats of death.

The early accusations of Harvey Weinstein start in 1984. Behind closed doors, it has been said, that was time, or that’s what happens in “that” industry? Does that feel more comfortable to put that behavior at a distance and is it some consultation that those women chose to be in that business? Like Those 9 children chose to go to that school, so they should have expected it? Treating people with a lack of humanity is wrong. If that is how people were taught and raised, it’s wrong.

There are laws prohibiting sexual harassment in the workplace. Companies have detailed policies of how this behavior is not tolerated; they can show the process for reporting sexual harassment and produce metrics on incidences. But companies are not asking the right questions. Is this an environment where people are comfortable reporting? Have people had an incident that they don’t report? Why don’t people report? Who are the executives that speak openly and supportively of a harassment free workplace. In terms of change management, who is the executive sponsor, those in leadership who champion a harassment free environment? Who are the advocates of change, those workers at large, who are not the targets of sexual harassments but vocal supporters of a harassment free environment?

In the timeline of civil rights, Jim Crow laws served to undermine the intent of the US constitution. Many companies have a non – disparagement agreement or ask workers to waive their right to go to court over employment issues — including sexual harassment — instead steering them into private arbitration where the claims and their outcome may never be made public. Whether it was the intent or not, these agreements are now a way for companies to avoid public disclosures of misconduct. Harvey Weinstein is an abomination, but not an anomaly. Cases of gross misconduct from Uber, Tesla, Amazon, Fidelity, Fox and others this year alone highlight there are issues. In the timeline of civil rights, Jim Crow laws served to undermine the intent of the US constitution. Many companies have a non – disparagement agreement or ask workers to waive their right to go to court over employment issues — including sexual harassment — instead steering them into private arbitration where the claims and their outcome may never be made public. Whether it was the intent or not, these agreements are now a way for companies to avoid public disclosures of misconduct.

What’s next? With recent events in the news, it is an excellent time for companies to examine their policies. For people in his workplace, it is a time to think about how to handle harassment. ¹ Most of all, understand what you hear in the news are not isolated instances but everyday life and it’s wrong. It’s time for a substantial conversation with actionable results. The facts show sexual harassment is a problem in the workplace. History shows a pattern this can continue for decades. Now is the time for a movement to embrace a change for an inclusive, harassment free environment.

 

¹Sexual Harassment, Collateral Prey and the Myth of the Bystander