Harvey Weinstein’s daughters used to attend the same all-girls school as my own. The Hollywood producer never hit on us moms like he did so many actresses in his industry. Maybe we didn’t have stars in our eyes. Maybe we weren’t pretty enough. Maybe it was ironic respect for his daughter’s world. But I suspect the real reason is because he had no power over us. After all, we weren’t looking for a role in his movie, nor were we in the same business as him. And on parent-teacher night, he was just another dad huddled in a too-small classroom desk, watching the clock stand still.
But what about the places some of those mothers work where men do have power over them? Do they silently work alongside Weinstein behavior, or do they address it more directly than many actresses have? The hundreds of thousands of #metoo posts on social media—to identify as a victim of sexual harassment or assault—underscores how pervasive this behavior is. Yet most women tend to keep these stories to themselves. It’s not fun to rat out a badly behaving man, and women often feel shame about being caught in an awkward situation. And, of course, reporting an incident may have career ramifications. But this thinking has allowed the Weinsteins of the world to thrive. And that is what has to change.
I recently interviewed several career women for a screenplay I was working on, all with something they’ve carried in their hearts. One woman negotiated her bonus while her boss looked her directly in the eye and touched himself. A young banker proudly finished her first deal deck and showed it to the lead banker, who then playfully hugged her from behind, his hands firmly pushing up her breasts. A trader showed an intern how to redirect a conference camera to film oneself—and did she want to make a porno with him?
Even more of these power plays come in subtler form. I worked with a woman who received a pair of diamond earrings from our married boss. They made her earlobes hang heavy with self-regret. As she described it, “If I didn’t take them, I’ve insulted him. If I did take them, I’d appear interested in something other than a platonic relationship.” Now, 14 years later, she still wonders why she let herself get put in that position. Did you notice I wrote, “she let herself”? Because most women think that when a powerful man acts inappropriately, it’s somehow her own doing.
What did these women do in these situations? Instead of speaking up, they thought of a smooth way to demurely decline without damaging their careers. But for all the declinations, there are women who roll with it—women who put up with far more because they don’t want to be trouble and want to keep their jobs. I spoke to a former law intern who was surprised to find a partner’s tongue down her throat. Years later, she recalls telling him that she liked him, but that she had a boyfriend, all while noting his wedding band.
Women aim to keep the peace, to not be too much trouble, even after being made to feel stupid and powerless. We think men are admiring our skill set but instead find that they were never taking us seriously to begin with.
A bright side of Weinstein’s downfall is that Hollywood women carry a bigger microphone than women in other careers. Right now. they’re reciting lines they’ve finally written for themselves. Many of their confessions begin with, “I’ve never told this to anyone.” For all of us, that’s a good place to start. After countless cover-ups for rainmakers and masters of the universe, extinguishing harassment may begin from the downfall of this one otherwise quiet father.
Maureen Sherry is the author of Opening Belle.