Weinstein’s ousting puts workplace sexual harassment under the spotlight, but no magic solution exists
The unfolding scandal in Hollywood highlights the severity and prevalence of workplace sexual harassment and is a grim reminder of the lack of effective redress for victims in places like Hong Kong
Harvey Weinstein has now been fired from the film company that bears his name as a consequence of claims, now partially admitted, that he sexually harassed women throughout the course of his work.
Few right-minded people will mourn his departure, much as they are unlikely to have lost much sleep over Fox firing the late Roger Ailes when similar accusations of harassment led to his departure as head of Fox News.
Among the many, many objectionable aspects of the Weinstein affair is his rambling apology and confession after his actions came to light.
Weinstein said: “I came of age in the 60s and 70s when all the rules about behaviour and workplaces were different. That was the culture then.”
Aside from the fact that this is one of the worst forms of justification, implying that the problem is simply a matter of changed social mores, Weinstein’s statement is an outright lie. As I am nearer to his age than that of his victims and because my early career was spent working in media companies, I can testify that even in the 1970s, when I started work, sexual harassment was not acceptable and only the sleaziest people would dream of justifying it.
Of course, I was only a lowly employee back then but we all knew who the sexual predators were and they were widely despised. We also knew that the primary source of this harassment came from senior executives, as it does today, exploiting a so-called perk of power.
What has changed but not changed enough is that the victims have become empowered to speak out.
It cannot be easy to do this, especially as there is no shortage of low-lifes anxious to explain away sexual harassment by saying that “she must have been asking for it.”
As readers of this newspaper can be assumed to be intelligent there is no need to respond to this sort of nonsense. Yet this nonsense proliferates, albeit in more subtle ways, as closet misogynists complain bitterly that society is faced with “political correctness gone mad” when the issue of sexual harassment is raised. They say things like: “It’s got to a stage where you can’t even compliment a woman’s dress.” If they genuinely cannot understand the difference between a remark of this kind and a crude sexual action or worse, these people have a real problem.
It is the persistence of problems of this kind that allows this issue to fester. And fester it does; the only surprising thing here is not the high number of revelations about sexual harassment but the low number of reported cases.
In 2015 Cosmopolitan magazine commissioned a survey of full- and part-time female employees between the ages of 18 and 34 and found that one in three women had experienced sexual harassment at work at some point in their lives.
However, in the same year, the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission received only 6,822 sexual harassment complaints, the overwhelming majority of which were not upheld.
As these encounters almost always occur in private, proof is hard to come by and paper trails are largely non-existent. Those who suffer harassment therefore suffer the double jeopardy of the assault itself and the humiliation of trying to prove it.
It is therefore not surprising to learn that a 2013 US YouGov/Huffington Post poll found that three quarters of individuals who had experienced sexual harassment at work did not report the incident.
This lack of reporting does not mean there is a lack of awareness that this is going on. Indeed it is hard to imagine that there are many people working today who are not aware of sexual harassment in the workplace.
This, unfortunately, seems to be very much the case in places like Hong Kong, where the prospects of redress are weak and the male-dominated culture of many workplaces remains outdated.
Hong Kong does have a Sex Discrimination Ordinance. However, the city’s Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) seems to have little interest in the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace, although it does seem to have noticed that female domestic helpers are especially vulnerable in such matters.
Other than that, the four EOC papers in which workplace sexual harassment is mentioned will probably remain quite as unnoticed as all its other publications.
The average person faces quite enough challenges in their place of work without having to deal with this kind of violation. It would be quite satisfying to say that there is some magic solution here but there is not.
Nevertheless, putting this issue under the spotlight helps – maybe the removal of a few more Weinsteins and more Ailes would help even more.
Stephen Vines runs companies in the food sector and moonlights as a journalist and a broadcaster