It’s safe to say that three months ago, no one thought we would be here. Even back on Oct. 5, the day the New York Times published its heroic first story about Harvey Weinstein, breaking the silence on his decades-long history of sexual harassment and assault (sorry: alleged harassment and assault), and days later when the New Yorker followed with its own devastating account—I can still remember exactly where I was when both stories crossed the transom—few could have predicted the avalanche that it would start. Few knew how many predators there were out there among us, and that Weinstein, whose allegations would continue to pile up over subsequent weeks, would be just the beginning (and still the most extreme instance). Few among us knew that so many other blatant abusers had been sitting in plain sight—not just free at large walking among the population but there sitting right next to us in corporate America, in the arts, and atop some of the most powerful perches in in the world, some of them smiling at us in our living rooms every morning.
The movement of women coming forward has been stunning, advancing with the speed and force of a wildfire as victim after victim has finally felt free to speak out and tell the truth they’d been hiding for years. The women who have come forward—the Silence Breakers, Time’s unassailable choice for Person of the Year—are who we have to thank for blowing open the “secrets” that festered in so many workplaces for so long and for making sure that this time, the victims are being believed.
We have some serious issues as a society to grapple with in the coming weeks and months: how to prevent a frenzy or “witch hunt” taking hold; some cited the resignation of Senator Al Franken as proof we are already in the midst of one. As my colleagues at Time wrote in their cover story, “we’re still at the bomb-throwing point of this revolution, a reactive stage at which nuance can go into hiding… While anger can start a revolution, in its most raw and feral form it can’t negotiate the more delicate dance steps needed for true social change.”
We should also worry about an overreactive pendulum swing, where men begin to retreat reflexively from any kind of one-on-one engagement with women in the workplace (known as the Mike Pence approach, for the vice president’s refusal to dine alone with a woman who isn’t his wife). Already, some men in Silicon Valley have suggested as much in private. I’m worried about the first revelation of a false accusation for opportunistic reasons. If even one is discovered it could delegitimize the entire movement and the brave real claims that have been made.
And yet at the same time, we know there are more big, celebrated names still to be legitimately exposed. I now experience something close to PTSD every time a news alert goes off on my phone, afraid to look at who’s next.
Like many people, I didn’t know much of these behaviors existed, let alone were so prevalent. Affairs, yes. Lecherous behavior at the office holiday party, absolutely. But these allegations are just beyond. (On top being shocked that they happen, I’m also shocked that some of the men would behave in such ways that, on top of everything else, make them look so gross, vile and desperate.)
Because the instances are all so different and abuse takes many shapes and forms, there’s been an effort to categorize or “rank” each incident as it is revealed. There is a difference, people (myself included) have pointed out, between Harvey Weinstein or Roy Moore and the married mid-level executive who puts his hand on a young associate’s leg in the back of a cab. But drawing distinctions is a dangerous game, because every instance is different, because we never know all the facts, and because whatever form it takes, a victim’s sense of self-worth and pride in her career can be vaporized in an instant when the superior reveals he values her for something else instead.
But bomb-throwing and lost nuance aside, as we take a close look at this epidemic (an effort that will surely take months if not years) and try to dissect the root “causes” of this crisis, and how it might be that in 2017 we are finding ourselves in this place, we might want to take a step back and look at the way the way gender roles in our culture—some subtle and some not so subtle—may have played a role, and how some of the signs may have been hiding in plain sight.
Consider, for example, one of the most celebrated images in American history, the famous Alfred Eisenstaedt photograph called “V-J Day in Times Square,” also known as “The Kiss,” of a sailor’s passionate embrace of a nurse in the middle of Times Square celebrating the end of World War II. It is one of the most iconic, and is said to be the most frequently reproduced, image of the 20th century. When I entered college, it was almost a cliché to have the poster hanging on your dorm room wall, but many women did for its outright expression of the romance they were hoping to find. And yet the image is not exactly what it seems. Dig beneath the surface and you’ll find in reports and interviews that the woman, a 21-year-old dental assistant named Greta Zimmer (later Greta Zimmer Friedman), said the sailor, George Mendonsa, grabbed her, spun her around and forced the kiss on her. “It wasn’t that much of a kiss,” she would say decades later in an interview with the Veterans History Project. “I felt that he was very strong. He was just holding me tight. I’m not sure about the kiss. It was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event.” (In fact, Mendonsa was said to have been on a date with the other woman who can be seen smiling in the photo.) Many argue today that the photo should be seen as an instance not of romantic spontaneity but of sexual assault.
From an even earlier time, consider J.C. Leyendecker’s illustration on the cover of the December 1933 edition of the Saturday Evening Post, whose title says it all: “Stealing a Christmas Kiss.” In that case, there appears to be no effort at romanticism at all; the drawing portrays a man, dressed as an elf, in mid-grab, one arm around the woman’s waist, the other holding back her arm, while she actively pushes away. Her hands are held up in self-defense, her face is turned away and her expression a combination of I-am-going-to-smile-and-pretend-it’s-OK and barely concealed grimace.
Of course, social mores and relations between the sexes were entirely different back then—society dictated that it was men who did the approaching while women were encouraged to feign coy or resist. But have they really changed? Consider legions of Disney princess movies, or the mega-selling 1995 book The Rules, which advocated a series of tips for being coyly unavailable (always end phone calls first, be a little distant, capture his heart!) and which my friends and I, then single in our early twenties, devoured and recited to one another at the time. The book positioned men as the hunters and women as the alluring prize—and sold more than a quarter million copies in the U.S. alone. Or just ask any woman who’s ever waited by the phone for a man to be in touch. The man chases the woman; even as our society has moved leaps and bounds forward embracing gay marriage, transgender rights and so much more, that age-old rule of heterosexual courtship has evolved very little.
But now that we live in the bubbly era of venture-backed startups, there seems to be a new technology attempting to solve every social ill, and one such effort is trying to reverse the entrenched pattern of male-female relations. Whitney Wolfe Herd is the 28-year-old former member of the founding team of Tinder who in 2014 launched Bumble, the online dating app where women make the first move. As a casual observer I always thought this was a clever business model distinction, but hearing Wolfe speak at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Next Gen Summit in Laguna, Calif. last month, I learned she has much deeper thoughts on this, and that she is trying not just to build a business but to reverse entrenched norms around relationships between men and women. “We’ve all been raised to believe that men call the shots. Men make the first move,” she said in an interview with my colleague Kristen Bellstrom. “We should not only not go first,” she continued, “but when a man goes first, we should run away. We should play hard to get,” These norms, she said, not only persist, but they are dangerous: “When you encourage men to be macho, to be aggressive, to go after the woman, and you tell the women, ‘Don’t react, run away, play hard to get, reject them,’” she said, “It leads to aggressive behavior, and it leads to very negative interaction.” Wolfe is no stranger to this: she left Tinder in 2014, filed a lawsuit for sexual harassment, and won a settlement.
Taking this beyond the dating sphere, entrenched cultural ideals around the roles of men and women are part of the reason why women have had a harder time ascending to the CEO role at Fortune 500 companies and other positions of power. Society has taught us to see men one way and women another way, and while obviously that’s not true across the board, these perceptions permeate our culture. Ever hear the riddle about the man and his son who get into the car accident and the doctor says, “I can’t operate on this boy, he is my son”? The punch line, the thing supposed to trip everyone up, is that the doctor is a woman—imagine that! Many people have moved past such assumptions, but if the past several weeks has taught us anything it’s that much of the world has not. These biases can sneak up and announce themselves even at the highest ranks. Speaking at the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit in Washington, D.C. this past October, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar told some funny but telling anecdotes about sharing the spotlight with her junior colleague, the now-outgoing Sen. Al Franken. When they would occasionally walk through the airport together, she said, people would come up to Klobuchar and eagerly ask her, “do you work with him?” and ask her to take their photo with Franken. She recounted one flight they took from Washington to Minnesota that had an Atlanta-based flight crew. As Klobuchar and Franken boarded the plane together, the flight attendant got on the loudspeaker and excitedly announced to the plane that they had some special guests aboard with them: “Mr. and Mrs. Al Franken!” Klobuchar said Franken immediately rushed to correct her: “No, no,” he explained: “She’s actually the other senator”—at which point the flight attendant got back on the mic with an amended announcement: “Well, how cool is this! Husband and wife senators!” The women CEOs and top executives in the Most Powerful Women audience roared with laughter, especially when Klobuchar feigned the flight attendant’s southern accent. But they all recognized what they were hearing—because they’d encountered it too. (It should be said that the anecdote is purely a statement on society’s reaction to men and women in power and Klobuchar, speaking months before allegations would surface against Franken, made it clear that Franken did only the right thing in these instances.)
Back to the harassment epidemic at hand, though, I’m also wondering why we are not hearing about high profile instances from some other key industries. We’ve heard it from media, Hollywood, and technology. These are some of the more progressive industries in business. Where are the accusations from women on Wall Street, perhaps ground zero for entrenched male power? Where are they in sports? Why aren’t we hearing about men being outed at big, old line Fortune 500 companies? At the Most Powerful Women Summit, we asked the room of Fortune 500 CEOs and executive women to raise their hands if they’d ever been harassed. Scores of hands went up, and not tentatively, either: they shot straight up in the air. Of the five women sitting in the front center row, there were four raised hands.
Speaking at the Next Gen Summit a few weeks later, Hope Solo, the World Cup champion and two-time Olympic gold medalist goalkeeper who a week earlier had accused FIFA head Sepp Blatter of inappropriately groping her, said she was disappointed in the lack of female athletes who have spoken out. Solo—herself no stranger to accusations of poor behavior—also made the important point that abuse happens not just by the leaders and the big household names, but up and down the ladder: in the sports world, that means trainers, coaches, doctors, general managers and fellow teammates. “Sexual assault has become normalized in our society,” she said.
A final but important topic to come out of the Most Powerful Women conversations on this topic, as it continued to unfold, is the fact that there are tangible corporate policies can help prevent or at least limit the potential for abuse. This subject has been given little attention as one salacious headline after another takes the limelight, but it is no doubt being discussed in HR departments across the land: there are meaningful and effective preventative steps corporations can take to help root out this behavior. Among them: Designate lateral employees to hear complaints; employees may feel more comfortable coming forward if they can go to peers rather than to supervisors. Create anonymous tip lines—but make them truly anonymous and make them effective. Don’t include forced arbitration clauses in employment agreements. This is an issue Gretchen Carlson talks passionately and convincingly about; they gag women and prevent them from talking about the abuse if they reach a settlement. Similarly, Niniane Wang, the Silicon Valley engineer and startup founder who helped expose Binary Capital’s Justin Caldbeck’s abuses, advised corporate leaders in the room to not include NDAs in their employment agreements. In the tech world they were designed to prevent employees from leaking trade secrets, she said, but they have had the effect of keeping women silent about sexual harassment. Wang also called for tangible results that hurt perpetrators’ bottom lines—resignations, for example, rather than “apologies and two weeks in rehab.” She also made the point that when going about the normal course of business, even small gestures against inappropriate behavior can make a difference, like frowning visibly in a meeting when someone makes a comment you don’t like.
And then there’s the one universal truth everyone agreed on as the ultimate deterrent: To have more women in positions of power. It’s a lot harder to abuse the CEO. Or the CMO, or the SVP or the EVP or the general counsel or the head of product. Especially when they’re not the only woman leader in an organization or department, but surrounded by others. The more women leaders at every level of an organization, the better the hope of deterring bad behavior. (As Sheryl Sandberg put it, “It’s the power, stupid.”) Christa Quarles, CEO of OpenTable, told the Fortune audience that as women executives, the onus is on them to make change. “There’s a feeling as a woman [employee] that you have to ‘play the game that’s on the field,’” she said. “Meaning, don’t take things to HR, do what you need to do. But in a leadership position, it’s your duty to change the rules of the game.” She noted that in her experience, once executive teams are comprised equally of men and women—her current team, she said, is 50/50—“a lot of this stuff just falls away.”
There were other powerful messages of optimism from the women on stage. Amy Zeiring, the filmmaker and producer of The Hunting Ground and The Invisible War, award-winning films that have documented sexual assault on college campuses and in the military, said she felt “exhilarated” by all the women coming forward. “I never thought in my lifetime I would see headlines naming perpetrators and people believing survivors,” she said. “We’re in a new time. It’s a cultural revolution.”
“And unlike most social ills,” Zeiring added, “this is a problem we can solve.”