Power, Sex and Silence in the Workplace: Cultures of Complicity
Perhaps what is most concerning about the sexual harassment and assault alleged against Harvey Weinstein by several women is that it was an open secret in Hollywood for years. It was joked about by some and ignored by many others. However, it took two independent investigations, one from the New York Times and another from the New Yorker, for those with the power to step up and take a stand against the alleged behaviour.
It is not uncommon for those who take steps to report sexual harassment to find their experiences dismissed or trivialised. For example, in a landmark sexual harassment case in Australia1, the claimant stated that she had reported to her employer instances of sexual harassment. She recounted that the response from her supervisor was allegedly to laugh and say that “he himself had been hit with the ugly stick and that he never had the pleasure of being a target of sexual harassment and fantasies, and unfortunately no one had wanted to have an affair with him.” 2
These stories not only ignite a necessary dialogue within workplaces about such behaviour, but also provide a useful case study of how sexual harassment is aided and abetted by the inactivity and silence of those in a position to speak out about such behaviour.
Following the Weinstein accusations, several women made public allegations of sexual misconduct against the comedian, Louis C.K.. The celebrity responded by admitting to the claims and in a statement said:
“These stories are true. At the time, I said to myself that what I did was O.K. because I never [did anything] without asking first, which is also true. But what I learned later in life, too late, is that when you have power over another person, asking them…isn’t a question. It’s a predicament for them. The power I had over these women is that they admired me. And I wielded that power irresponsibly.”
The power that certain individuals have over those who might potentially speak out against inappropriate conduct is an important insight into how complicity is solidified within a culture. Take, for example, the situation of Quentin Tarantino whose movies, including Pulp Fiction, were distributed by Mr Weinstein. As far back as 1995 he knew of Weinstein’s conduct from his own girlfriend’s experience. As an “up-and-coming” director, the support that Mr Weinstein gave Mr Tarantino was critical to his success. Following the publicity around the allegations, Mr Tarantino reflected that he wished he “had taken responsibility for what [he] heard. If I had done the work I should have done then, I would have had to not work with him.”
Power and control are central to the employment relationship, and organisations must be enlivened to the possibility of such power being exploited. The power dynamic may contribute to an environment that prevents those affected from speaking out, as well as the willingness of peers, bystanders and other workers, who are dependent on the support of more powerful colleagues, from speaking out.
As the NY Times reports, the organisational silence echoes that of the broader industry. In 2015, an employee of Weinstein’s company, Lauren O’Connor, had written a letter to several executives in the business outlining inappropriate conduct against a colleague and notifying them that:
“There is a toxic environment for women at this company…
I am just starting out in my career, and have been and remain fearful about speaking up…But remaining silent is causing me great distress…
Harvey Weinstein is a 64 year old, world famous man and this is his company. The balance of power is me: 0, Harvey Weinstein: 10…I am a professional and have tried to be professional. I am not treated that way however. I am sexualized and diminished.”
According to the report, “some Weinstein Company board members and executives…were alarmed about the allegations….in the end though, board members were assured that there was no need to investigate. After reaching a settlement with Mr. Weinstein, Ms. O’Connor withdrew her complaint and thanked him for the career opportunity he had given her”.
These accounts offer a rare and candid glimpse into an industry where success is built, in part, on ignoring unfortunate facts and protecting one’s own interest in the face of inappropriate sexual conduct.
As a result of women coming forward to speak up against the systemic issues, change is possible. In a statement announcing the expulsion of Mr Weinstein from the body that awards the Oscars, the Board of Governors for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences explained its decision as follows:
“We do so not simply to separate ourselves from someone who does not merit the respect of his colleagues but also to send a message that the era of willful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behaviour and workplace harassment in our industry is over. What’s at issue here is a deeply troubling problem that has no place in our society.”
It is fair to be skeptical of the industry’s ability to change, but this sentiment draws attention to how institutional silence on issues such as sexual harassment plays a significant role in the perpetuation of this type of conduct and in disempowering those who experience harassment from bringing forward their allegations.
In Australia, organisations often have policies and procedures that make provision for raising allegations of this nature. But it is worthwhile considering whether the culture of an organisation creates a climate of silence and implicitly discourages the reporting of such allegations.
Another significant aspect is the liability that may arise for individuals who turn a blind eye towards inappropriate sexual conduct in the workplace. In terms of accountability within an organisation, the personal liability of individuals for breaches of the Fair Work Act 2009 (Cth) (“FW Act”) and anti-discrimination laws such as the Sex Discrimination Act 1984 (Cth) (“SD Act”) may become an issue for those considered to be “involved” in a contravention. This can include directors, compliance officers, managers and senior human resources staff.
Under the FW Act, involvement in a contravention is treated in the same way as an actual contravention. An individual is taken to be “involved” in a contravention if he or she:
(a) has aided, abetted, counselled or procured the contravention; or
(b) has induced the contravention, whether by threats or promises or otherwise; or
(c) has been in any way by act or omission, directly or indirectly, knowingly concerned in or party to the contravention; or
(d) has conspired with others to effect the contravention.
To be “knowingly concerned in or party to the contravention” (s 550(2)(c)), the conduct in question may take the form of an act or omission, with the potential to capture a failure to act where some form of action would have been the appropriate response. For example, where an HR manager had knowledge of the essential matters that made up the employer’s contraventions, he was found to have been knowingly concerned in these contraventions on the basis that “as human resources manager, he should have been aware of, and at least attempted to give advice on, [the employer’s] obligations under the [Act].3”
Borrowing from the criminal law concept, “willful blindness” can arise “where a person deliberately refrains from making enquiries because he prefers not to have the result, when he wilfully shuts his eyes for fear that he might learn the truth, he may for some purposes be treated as having the knowledge which he deliberately abstained from acquiring”.
Where a remedy for sexual harassment or discriminatory conduct is pursued in the discrimination context, the personal liability of an individual alleged to be involved in a breach can also arise. Under the SD Act, a person who “causes, instructs, induces, aids or permits” another person to breach the legislation is taken also to have done the unlawful act.
In this context, the reach of the SD Act has been held to extend to the role of an employment agency that knew that several young women it sent to a particular employer had made sexual harassment allegations. The agency was found to have “permitted” the unlawful conduct that took place in relation to a young woman who was harassed at that workplace, on the basis that the prior complaints relating to that workplace should have alerted it to the distinct possibility that any young female sent to that workplace was at risk.4
Take the example of a senior employee or director who is aware of instances of inappropriate conduct occurring in workplace, but who remains silent in circumstances where, because of their position of authority in that workplace, action on their part could have had an impact on the behaviour. By their own inertia on the issue, they may run the risk that they are taken to have condoned or permitted such conduct. This becomes a greater risk where there are repeat and consistent allegations, making silence a poor choice.
The recent accusations made around the abuse of power and inappropriate sexual conduct by celebrities have brought to light how systemic sexual harassment in organisations thrives on silence and complicity. Key personnel in such organisations run the risk of being viewed as potentially involved in contraventions, where their awareness and position give them the capacity to influence such behaviour.