Too Big to Fail? An Analysis of Workplace Sexual Harassment

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by Xavier Ramey and Kelsie Harriman

If one really wishes to know how power is distributed within a company, one does not question the executives, the managers, the clients, or the protected members of the investor class. One goes to the unprotected — those, precisely, who need the policies’ protection most! — and listens to their testimony. Ask any woman, any person of color, any LGBTQIA individual, any of the lowest wage-earners — ask them if the company policies empower them, or respect their worth as persons. And then you will know, not just whether the company is equitable, but whether it has any love or commitment to equity, or any concept of it. It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy equity can have. – Inspired by James Baldwin, No Name in the Street,1972

Arguments around workplace sexual harassment are being distorted. Workplace sexual harassment is not just about desire; it is about power, and how this power is unequally distributed, utilized, and protected in our workplaces.

On October 15, 2017, actress Alyssa Milano, drawing on a phrase coined by Tarana Burk, made a landmark statement on Twitter: “If you have been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Once #metoo hit Facebook, it took less than 24 hours for 4.7 million people to use the hashtag.

#Metoo has changed the national conversation about sexual harassment.  Congress and corporate America are taking steps to address the deluge of sexual harassment claims that surfaced in its wake: firing harassers and encouraging resignations, requiring sexual misconduct training, and establishing better anonymous reporting systems.

These remedies are necessary, but they will never be more than short-term solutions. They do not adequately address the phenomenon which allows for, accepts, and protects sexual harassment in the workplace: namely, the abuse of power. “Power” refers to the ability of an individual or group to influence, persuade, or control the behavior of another. “Power structures” refer to the social architecture that supports such influence. Power structures are culturally supported and materially invisible. They underlie every relationship between two or more people.

Workplace power is not only derived from title and salary; it is also heavily influenced by demographic characteristics such as race, gender, and religion. Socio-historical forces have artificially ascribed some demographics power over others, and all of these forces are at play in shaping power structures within a company. Wherever there is an imbalance of power – whether between individuals or between groups -there is a possibility for the powerful to coerce and abuse the powerless and unprotected.

Workplace sexual harassment arises when those with power attempt to influence, persuade, or control the behavior of another person, especially a subordinate or direct report. Research corroborates this link between sexual harassment and power. Psychology Today provides three possible explanations as to why power contributes to sexual misconduct, especially among men: those who associate sex and power are more likely to engage in coercive sexual behavior; power may cause individuals to overestimate others’ sexual interest in them; and otherwise insecure individuals with newfound power are likely to engage in aggressive or unwelcome sexual behavior. Tavis Smiley, whose popular show was recently suspended from PBS, is an example of why sexual relationships between managers and their subordinates, whether consensual or not, can be problematic. The manager/subordinate relationship is predicated on a power imbalance which requires the individual with more authority to exercise better judgment and be held to a higher behavioral standard.

How Many Voices?

Evidence for the correlation between sexual harassment and power is in the numbers. \The New York Times keeps a running list of those who have fallen from power because of sexual misconduct since Weinstein. All of them are men. All  of them are highly influential in their field. All but a few are white.

Most of these men had multiple accusers. Today, question is just how many accusations from comparatively less influential individuals are required before an organization is willing to turn on the lights and investigate the alleged wrongdoing of a single, powerful man. To use a recession-era term for those caught in wrongdoing but remained untouched regardless of the havoc they wrought: are powerful people accused of sexual misconduct “too big to fail”? It took over 150 accusers to indict Larry Nassar, eighty-four accusers to indict Harvey Weinstein, and eight accusers each to indict Al Franken, Charlie Rose, and Roy Moore. Now, at least 15 women have spoken out against President Trump, arguably the most powerful man in our country, and we’ve yet to turn the lights on.

Centering: The Challenge of Being Specific

To find a sustainable, long-term way to address workplace sexual harassment, we must begin by reordering the fundamentally imbalanced power structures that have come to define our society. Today, women are underrepresented in positions of corporate and political leadership, particularly in the Fortune 500 where 93.6% of executives are men.

The process of rebalancing power is not as unidimensional as simply promoting more women, however. Undoubtedly, achieving gender-proportional leadership with an intersectional lens toward racial diversity at the executive level would do much to restore the balance of power.Yet we must expand our thinking until we have reached a place where we not only promote, but center, all of those who are historically and presently marginalized, be they women, LGBTQIA individuals, or those who identify with multiple marginalized groups. Centering is the process wherein people in power foster meaningful opportunities for subordinates’ professional growth that are responsive to the unique identity of each; wherein those with authority use their influence to elevate the voice of people who would not otherwise would be heard; wherein workplace leaders build quality personal and professional relationships with employees of all genders, identities, and levels of power while fully respect of their unique human value. People are worth more than the influence that our society and our corporations often ascribe to them.

Encouragingly, the process of centering has already begun. A group of powerful Hollywood women have started an anti-harassment campaign called “Time’s Up” that includes a legal defense fund to protect less privileged women from harassment, legislation designed to hold corporations accountable, and efforts to achieve gender parity at studios and talent agencies. “Time’s Up” and Oprah Winfrey stole the show at this year’s at the Golden Globes, where Oprah used her platform as the first African American female recipient of the Cecil B. DeMille award to call out the systemic inequalities at the heart of the entertainment industry.  People with power in their industry – no matter their gender identity – can use their influence to identify and dismantle the power inequities that are at the root of workplace sexual harassment.

It is certain that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy equity can have. A Justice Informed organization would consider this reality, and seek to educate the powerful members of its ranks so that they will become better leaders. It would enforce policies that protect the unprotected and prevent the abuse of power. It would center the marginalized, for only by re-centering can we correct the imbalances that created opportunity for abuse in the first place. As Oprah said in her Golden Globes address, we need leaders — both corporations and individuals — who will help bring us to the place where no one ever has to say #metoo again.

If you are someone you know has been a victim of workplace sexual harassment, do not remain silent. Know your rights at work. Learn about survivors’ legal options, how to maintain economic security, how to assist survivors, and where to find resources for advocates. For more ideas and strategies about correcting workplace power imbalances and preventing sexual harassment, contact Justice Informed at

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