- File: Stefan Hard
- Cary Brown at the Equal Pay Day press conference at the Statehouse in April
When the New York Times first reported on sexual harassment allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein in October, it took the nation by storm. Riveting subsequent stories by Ronan Farrow in the New Yorker revealed Weinstein's extensive network of enablers.
Seemingly overnight, the #MeToo movement on social media — an indicator of women's corroboration and solidarity — took off. And the "Harvey effect" quickly led to an outburst of accusations in other arenas, particularly politics and media. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), NBC "Today" show host Matt Lauer and National Public Radio's senior vice president for news Michael Oreskes, among others, have been fired or tendered resignation following harassment allegations.
Seven Days spoke with Cary Brown, executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women, to discuss the effects of public shaming and appropriate steps to address sexual harassment allegations, among other topics. The VCW is a nonpartisan state commission dedicated to advancing rights and opportunities for women in Vermont.* Active for more than 50 years, it educates the public on sexual harassment in the workplace and, in 2000, published a guide for employees and employers on the topic.
The VCW recently concluded research on sexual harassment legislation that has passed or been proposed in some states, including California, Illinois, New York and Texas. "We have a lot of different strategies to look at," said Brown, "which we might likely be discussing as the [legislative] session comes up."
SEVEN DAYS: Are the Harvey Weinstein allegations as shocking as they appear to be?
CARY BROWN: I think the #MeToo campaign is really an expression of the fact that most women are not shocked, because most women have experienced some version of this. The new part is how many women are publicly talking about what's happened to them. But, especially, the new part is how many people are believing them and taking them seriously.
What will be really interesting, though, is what happens when the buzz [dies] down in the media. Will we really have any substantial cultural changes? When Anita Hill gave her testimony [against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas], there was a lot of talk about sexual harassment at the workplace and women being believed or not believed. She was not believed by a lot of people, and that made a lot of people really angry.
I think there was a lot of attention given then, but I don't know that there were any really significant changes that came about. So, now, it's really up to us to say, "Well, if we are as angry about this as we feel, we need to do something really significant to make a change to our culture, not necessarily to our laws."
SD: How do you feel about public shaming as a tool to bring predatory men down from their positions of power?
CB: It's a mixed bag. We have to be careful that we're really giving everybody the respect that they deserve. It's tricky, because we want to believe people who say that they've experienced some really awful stuff. We also want to make sure that, in the end, we have a culture and workplaces where people are able to communicate with each other and get along with each other. To do that, they may need to have more direct communications than we get with this public shaming process. It's a way to make public statements, but it's not necessarily the best way to change the way people are interacting with each other on a day-to-day basis.
SD: Could you elaborate on the direct communications that need to be taking place?
CB: For example, in a lot of companies, they have a sexual harassment awareness training process that their employees go through. Very often, it's done online, and you watch a video, or you click through some slides by yourself. It's not interactive, and it's not necessarily the best way to go about real education. In many workplaces, that's the last anyone ever talks about it. So, there's no opportunity to understand what kind of behavior might be problematic and why.
For a lot of people, they think of sexual harassment as being really overt. [The] stuff that we hear about Harvey Weinstein, it's not necessarily typical. Most women are not experiencing that on a day-to-day basis. The kinds of things they're experiencing at work are more subtle and harder to put your finger on sometimes. And yet, they can still contribute to this ongoing feeling of I'm not welcome here. I'm not valued here.
One thing that companies can do is make their training more of an ongoing process. There's training that happens when they start the job. But then there's also training that's ongoing throughout the job, not just something passive that you do by yourself on the computer. It involves interaction with other employees and people really talking to each other.
SD: What steps do you think the Vermont legislature should take to prepare for handling sexual harassment charges?
CB: I know that there are legislators working on legislation. But I don't know what form it's going to take yet. I do expect that we'll be involved in that process in some way. Part of our role is to provide research and information that helps assist legislators with developing [laws]. I do think there's a role for legislation and laws to address this. It's just one piece of the whole puzzle. This is not a problem that can be solved with laws.
SD: It seems like all the different forms of sexual harassment — from inappropriate comments to rape — are being lumped together. What are your thoughts on how we might have a meaningful conversation?
CB: It's really important to have that conversation, because they're not all the same. We'd be doing a disservice both ways when we say that the offhand comment about somebody's appearance that crosses the line into being inappropriate is the same as someone being raped. And vice versa. If we put rape in the same category as the inappropriate comments, that's also a way of not treating rape as seriously as we need to.
It's not to say that any of it is OK or that any of it is not that bad. That's not the point. The point is, we need to be able to talk about them as different kinds of experiences and the effect that they have on people. The traumatic effect can be very different.
SD: Right now, there's a huge calling out of past offenses, finger-pointing and pressure on politicians to be removed from their positions. What would you like to see happen after this? After the shaming, what's next?
CB: It depends on the circumstances. I would like to see everyone who's accused have the opportunity to be able to respond and to have these cases really looked at in a more individual way. I'm not a big fan of shame as a technique for managing poor behavior. I do think it happens sometimes, and, clearly, it's effective in some cases.
But, ideally, we're giving a bit more individualized thought and consideration than that. I would love to see us move away from shaming and more into education and not to demonize people who've done something rotten, but not letting them get away with it, either. But to consider the idea that people might learn from their past behavior and change their behavior in the future. I think we're not always ready to see that.
I believe people can change their behavior. I believe that there are a lot of sexual harassment cases that involve ignorance, and there's potential for somebody to understand the effect that their words have had and change their behavior in a genuine, sincere way. We have to allow for that possibility, while at the same time holding people accountable for their actual behavior.
SEVEN DAYS: What should we make of the fact that there isn't a consistent response to sexual harassment allegations made against politicians?
CB: It's because there's no official process that they're going through. They're not going through the court system. And so, if somebody resigns, it's because they've made their own decision that that's what they need to do. They felt pressure from their supporters to do that. I think it's really important for us to look at how we hold people accountable. What's our structure for doing that?
The public shaming process does not give us consistent results. It's not a really predictable, reliable way to hold people accountable, because some are losing their jobs and careers, and some are being rewarded.*Clarification, December 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the Vermont Commission on Women's organizational structure.