In this piece, we want to speak on a topic that gets us frustrated, devastated and overwhelmed – the silence of Bystanders.
Disturbing and Uplifting
I am deeply disturbed by the Harvey Weinstein saga that seems to deteriorate further every day.
My reaction is not unique, but the reason I am so disturbed seems outside of the current narrative.
Furious about ‘the guy’ and his predatory and likely CRIMINAL actions.
Devastated about the cover-ups – dare we believe the likes of Russell Crow and Matt Damon seriously played an active role in keeping this underground?
Simultaneously uplifted and overwhelmed by the literally thousands of stories from both women and men as they share their stories via the #metoo and #ihave hashtags.
How many people knew this was all happening and said nothing. The Bystanders who had a gut feeling, or even explicitly knew, that something bad was going on, but didn’t act. In the newspaper reports, there are streams of emails and a series of memos about terrible situations and the settlement arrangements that saw them buried. People knew what was happening.
Not unique to the Weinstein Case
I am confident that in many (if not most) cases of sexual harassment, there is always a group of people around the situation who know what is happening. They don’t speak up, perhaps out of fear, or feelings of powerless. Perhaps because they simply do not want to become involved in what is always a deeply uncomfortable situation. If the accusations are made, the perpetrators often come out swinging. If they hold the power, it can be fatal for anyone within a kilometer radius of the situation. Plus, the faces on the front-page stories of the last case, are now often the same faces that have never found employment again. Have they had to change countries to be employable?
When I say I am disturbed by the silence of Bystanders, I genuinely say this with no judgement. I understand the reality of power and the fragility of a career.
I empathise with the victims and understand their reluctance to speak out.
I remain disturbed by the role of all the Bystanders and the impact of their inaction. Silence has meant the behaviour continued, unchecked, often escalating, indefinitely.
My own role
Then I realise that my discomfort is due to the deep painful knowledge that I have been a Bystander. Only a few times, but once is too many times. I have known both men and women who have sexually harassed their direct reports, colleagues and one time, their boss.
In all of these instances, my gut told me something was wrong. I saw signs from both the harasser and the target. I heard the murmurings from other Bystanders about what was happening. And because instances of sexual harassment rarely stand-alone (it is usually a pattern of behaviour honed over the long term), I have also heard the well-meaning words of advice from concerned colleagues trying to ‘protect’ others around them (‘ignore X when he makes comments about women’s bodies, it’s just the way he is – he is old school’, or ‘just watch X after a few drinks, he can be a little handsy’).
Before you write me off as the worst of people (a little bit of self-preservation creeping in), there have been plenty of times that I have proudly and loudly stepped in and stood up, said something and have addressed instances of sexual harassment head on without flinching. What I find difficult to reconcile now, is that why even someone like me – who clearly knows what is ‘not ok’, understands the processes and supports in place; and had some positional (role-based) power and scope to act – still, on occasion, has been silent when I should have acted. Based on this experience, I find it hard to judge or criticise other bystanders who have kept quiet, because I get how hard this situation can be.
Instead, I kept reflecting painfully on each of the cases where I stood by.
There were three that kept making me breathe in loudly.
A woman who quickly and ‘randomly’ left her dream job just a few months into working with a boss who was known for his predatory behaviour.
A father of 5 who may still in counselling with his wife after one of his team relentlessly harassed him, leading to all kinds of trust issues within the marriage.
A young woman, with a side gig as a social media influencer, who has closed all of her social pages and lost this stream of incomes (plus a lot of confidence) after a colleague took his ‘admiration’ for her appearance way too far.
In the end, I called a few friends over the weekend, to talk. We sat and I shared my stories. I wasn’t sure whether I was looking for the judgement I deserved. Whether I was looking for their similar stories, but I needed to talk. What I heard was that every person around the table had examples too. Some small, some larger, but all of them owning, with quite some pain, the experience of being a Bystander.
It’s more a call (a painful plea) to all of us, to remember is sexual harassment literally ruins and forever changes lives.
We also need to be aware that it is not a rare experience confined to the era of ‘Mad Men’. The #metoo and #ihave campaigns have made it clear sexual harassment is still alive and well, possibly even flourishing, potentially more overt than ever before.
Make a change
To make a step change here we need every one of our collective voices and actions as Bystanders to be heard loudly, and as early as possible. The collective approach here is the only key that can beat significant power. One person can be silenced, but a group cannot. It’s going to take all our skin in the game to break the circuit on this one.
Imagine if Bystanders spoke up earlier in the Weinstein case? Many women could have avoided sexual advances, and even assaults, from this bathrobe-clad man.
Now let’s bring this issue a little closer to home in a seriously honest way. How many situations that you know of could we have been stopped from escalating or altogether avoided?
Reflecting on my own silences, I know there are 3 people who have been directly impacted by my failure to say something. If I add the examples from those I gathered around the table, and that number goes to fourteen.
That’s fourteen people who now would have had a different life experience, because I, and others like me, would have chosen to ‘get involved’ when we knew we should have.
So no more waiting. It’s long past time.
If we are all in this together, we will be better able to fight fear, discomfort, uncertainty and individual consequences. We can support ‘victims’ to speak out confidently and quickly. And we will make damn sure that harassers know they are visible. That their bad behaviour will not be ignored, accepted, or swept aside with (another) settlement.
Let’s change the story and make sure the future narrative of sexual harassment starts and ends with a single issue. One that was addressed before any other lives were so sadly and unfairly impacted.