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THOMPSON: Perpetrators of sexual harassment need to be held accountable

April 24, 2017 - 12:30 PM

 


OPINION


I don't really know what it's like to be a woman. No amount of empathy, sensitivity and caring changes that. I do know that women face unwanted sexual advances and harassment more than men. My guess is that the first Canadian woman - and the first American woman - who worked outside the home likely had to fend off a coworkers’ or boss's less-than-honourable intentions. My further guess...those women soon after had to decide whether to quit or submit.

It's ridiculous...no, absurd...that women continue to face pervasive sexual harassment today. It's 2017, for heaven's sake. And while we think we've come along way, talk to women about the issues and you might be shocked...and saddened.

Various surveys on workplace sexual harassment find that between 38 percent and 60 percent of women report such incidents. The key word is "report" because legal experts say the majority of incidents simply go unreported for fear of personal or professional retaliation.

Legally, women today have recourse in both Canada and the United States that didn't exist a few decades ago. But, what troubles me most is that women face an unjust uphill battle when they do the right thing and report sexual harassment.

Too many of those in power seem to find it easier to dismiss women's allegations rather than believe them. Perpetrators - correctly - are innocent until proven guilty. But society seems to suspect victims from the moment they come forward. The insinuation - at times even unspoken - is that the perpetrator must have been encouraged. And this attitude - like a virus - has spread across cultures and continents.

I wonder, what's the magic number? You know, the number of women that have to accuse a man before we believe any given woman's account? Is it two...ten...20? With Bill Cosby the magic number is 60! Sixty...and even then...there are those who refuse to believe the women. Women from all walks of life, from all races, from all over the country, over decades, said Bill Cosby raped or assaulted them. Really? Do his defenders think this is some gold digger mass conspiracy to target poor old Bill and take all his money?

Some organizations - like 21st Century Fox - have cultures that haven't simply looked the other way...they have encouraged sexual harassment. Last week, Bill O'Reilly - the darling of the Fox News Channel - was fired. There were years of allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour from at least five women, who were paid $13 million by Fox and O'Reilly to make lawsuits go away. But it was not moral outrage from 21st Century Fox and Rupert Murdoch, CEO of parent company News Corp that got him fired. It was scores of advertisers pulling away in protest.

Even though O'Reilly brought in $446 million in advertising revenue in the past three years, he learned a hard lesson that we should all note. Oh, the lesson isn't really about unwanted sexual advances being improper. The Murdoch media empire has its eyes on acquiring Sky TV, the European pay TV company, a deal worth $14 billion...and negative publicity about O'Reilly put at risk. Hmmm...$446 million versus $14 billion. It's about the money...not the outrage of his inappropriate actions.

Remember, too, eight months ago, Fox News founder and CEO Roger Ailes, was fired. Similar allegations and huge payouts, including the final straw, a $20 million settlement to former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson. The culture was and likely still is so corrupt, the Feds are looking into criminal charges against 21st Century Fox for the hush money paid from corporate funds. Sure, Fox put out a nice-sounding statement when O'Reilly was fired. But attitudes of the others who grew up in that culture and whose numbers are unknown didn't disappear two weeks ago.

Also last week, in a revealing interview with CNN's Anderson Cooper, Kirsten Powers, who worked with O'Reilly as a News Analyst and now works at CNN, explained how money was always the decisive factor in the perverse culture at Fox. She often demanded answers from Ailes.

"Roger Ailes said, 'You know Bill, he likes to put up dirty pictures and ask pretty girls to talk about them.' Oh, and then he said, 'what am I gonna do? I don't like him, but he makes so much money, there's nothing I can do."

And yesterday, Alison Camerota, also at CNN, who spent ten years at Fox News, alleged Ailes made inappropriate sexual comments and solicited sex in exchange for better career opportunities.

The discouraging aspect of all this - and it must drive some women absolutely crazy - is that it's been going on for a long, long time. We tend to remember events when famous people are involved. I worked in Washington, D.C. when Clarence Thomas was nominated to the U.S. Supreme Court after Justice Thurgood Marshall retired.

When the Thomas nomination went to the full Senate, Anita Hill, a University of Oklahoma law professor was asked to testify after the FBI leaked details to the media about its earlier interview with her. She accused Thomas of sexual harassment years before when he headed the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission and she reported directly to him.

I recall the overwhelmingly negative characterizations of Anita Hill among Washington's powerfully elite. The attitude seemed, "How dare she?" Some always ask the same question of the accuser: "Why did she wait so long to come forward?" You should be able to answer that on your own...but remember who's in power...who's in position to make or break careers. And, again, history shows in matters of he said, she said, he said usually gets the nod.

And yet, she took a lie detector test, which supported her claims. Thomas didn't. Four witnesses - all women - that could attest to Anita Hill's character were never called to testify. She was called the most scurrilous names you can imagine in a pro-Thomas PR campaign. The Senate - comprised of 98 men and two women - confirmed Thomas by a vote of 52-48. He remains a Justice today.

How much have things changed for women between 1991 and 2017? There are more women in government...and I think that's progress. But, are women much better off today when it comes to the credence of their claims about sexual harassment?

I don't think so...not substantially. And that's a pity. The current U.S. president, Donald Trump, was elected despite getting caught on tape bragging about what he could do to women with impunity. Further evidence of how far we have to go: 53 percent of white women voted for Trump. Did they buy into, perhaps, his claim that it was simply "locker room talk?” Who knows, but it shows what women are up against.

Women have a tougher time than men, in general. Statistics clearly support that...lower pay for the same jobs, fewer women at the top despite decades of women in the workplace, and so on.

I'm reminded of a 1982 Frank and Ernest cartoon where Frank, Ernest and a woman stood outside a theatre showing a Fred Astaire film festival. The woman said, "Sure he was great, but don't forget that Ginger Rogers did everything he did...backwards and in high heels."

I hope the day will come when - as a society - we believe women as much as men. I'm tired of bromides like, "She really wanted it," and "They're no angels, either," and, "I didn't know she heard that," and countless other stupid excuses. Sexual harassment should never be excused.

If you need to hear it from the most common victims, ask your mother, your aunt, your sister, your wife, your daughter. My three grand daughters are young children...and perhaps if we hold perpetrators accountable today...they'll have less to worry about tomorrow.

– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.


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