Behind the Movement: Emory Professors Talk #MeToo

In wake of sexual assault allegations against film executive Harvey Weinstein reported by The New Yorker and The New York Times, other allegations of sexual harassment have arisen against powerful men across the film and media industry and in politics in the United States.

Revelations of the allegations led women across entertainment and other industries to create the #MeToo and the Time’s Up movements to display solidarity and support for victims of sexual assault and harassment.

The Emory Wheel sat down with Associate Professor of Political Science and Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies Beth Reingold and Associate Professor of Organization and Management at the Goizueta Business School Melissa Williams to discuss the impacts of these social movements.

Molly Ball, The Emory Wheel: Why are women only now speaking about their encounters with predatory men?

Beth Reingold: They’re not only now doing it. Women have been speaking out and organizing about sexual harassment in particular at least since the 1980s, if not [earlier]. It’s not the first time it’s ever happened, but it is perhaps the most prevalent because of social media and current events. I would venture to say that we probably have more women telling their stories now than before.

Melissa Williams: Women are feeling newly empowered by the voices of [other] women. Now they’re feeling like the environment is safer than it used to be, so speaking up about harassment especially when the person doing harassing is more powerful — that always carries risks to jobs, to health, to reputation.

EW: Do you think any real change will come out of this national conversation? Has concrete change happened already?

BR: Concrete change, that, I don’t know. It looks like there’s going to be some change in [Congress] … but I would venture to say that the same thing might be going on in a lot of state legislature and city councils. One of the things that has come up in the recent discussion has to do with these settlements that require victims to keep their mouths shut and give perpetrators cover. That basically prevents any information from going public. 

MW: I hope so. On the one hand, we’ve been here before a little bit. In the early ’90s, there [was] the Anita Hill [testimony in the] confirmation hearing for [U.S. Supreme Court Justice] Clarence Thomas [in which Hill accused him of sexual harassment]. He was confirmed anyway, but it did start a conversation in the country about … harassment, how common it is, what women experience and [if] we need to be taken more seriously. I have to say this period feels different, so I have some optimism that we’ll see real change that we haven’t seen in the past. We do see responses becoming swifter; the goal here isn’t to rush to judgement without true understanding of the facts, but I do think it is a positive thing.

EW: Can you talk about hierarchies and power structures in the workplace?

MW: When a person obtains a position of power, and this is true for men and women both, it can blind you a little bit. It creates a mental distance between yourself and those below you, and so we find in the research that people who are managers, people who are in positions of power, tend to underestimate the degree to which their position influences others people’s behavior. [For example], if I’m a manager, I tend to think that if my subordinate is smiling at me, she must really like me or be communicating friendliness, and we forget the fact that of course a subordinate is going to smile at the boss because they’re the boss. [This] creates all kinds of difficulties when it comes to misinterpreting signals, when it comes to the assumption that if she doesn’t like it, she’s going to tell me about it. I think managers assume that when they don’t get the immediate negative outcry … then it must be okay.

EW: What can people or institutions do to combat a gender imbalance?

BR: Litigation hasn’t been the long term solution to the problems. In fact, the way lots of litigation has gone, it’s covered up the problem, more than anything else. Plus, it puts the onus on the victim to come forth and to report it. “#MeToo” kinds of movements can really make a difference in raising awareness. It’s all important and necessary, but it’s one piece of the puzzle. Part of the problem is that there [aren’t] enough women in positions of power. The assumption is that this wouldn’t happen if the roles were reversed.

MW: There are big structural problems. But I think if we can work on the problem of harassment, that will be a positive step forward because we know that women’s choices about where to work and what industries to work in … are influenced by the things they’ve learned from other women about safe versus dangerous workplace environments. So if women don’t have to make differential career choices … based on a fear about how they will be treated, than they might have more opportunities.

EW: Is there a concern about the lack of due process in some of these allegations, what with immediate condemnation from the public of the alleged attackers? What are the ethics behind most of these allegations going into the court of public opinion?

BR: They are very much part of the reason why so few women before now have been able to speak out, because the mere act of accusing seems to be like [another] violation. The presumption behind all those concerns is that women make these things up to persecute and harm innocent men.

MW: That’s always a concern anytime anybody’s reputation is at stake. We of course don’t want to rush to judgement and accuse somebody of something that has career consequences for somebody who didn’t do anything, but I think if we’re concerned about the likelihood that someone going to be falsely accused relative to the likelihood that harassment is going to go unreported, than the latter is likely a much bigger concern. There are many more women who are not reporting the negative treatment they experienced … we’re just trying to do a better job of achieving the right balance.

EW: Will the #MeToo movement keep its momentum?

BR: No movement lasts forever, and part of the lesson of this movement and just about any others is that it’s really hard to keep it going, … so in the end, you would be hard-pressed to find a social movement you could say was completely successful. There has been a lot of talk about [modern] hashtags movements in general and [if they are] more effective, less effective. I’m not sure there’s a real clear consensus on that yet.

MW: That’s difficult to predict, but as I mentioned, before the internet, we’ve had people talking in other outlets in print media and so on about sexual harassment, and we see this topic having ups and downs in the media in the past. Now again that was pre-Twitter, so things may be different. I hope that it will last, but I’m only cautiously optimistic.

EW: It seems like almost every profession has been rocked by sexual assault abuses — has this happened in higher education/academia?

MW: It does happen in higher education. The power structure in higher education can be just as strong and impactful if a professor has control over somebody’s research funding or career.

EW: With allegations against powerful people such as Harvey Weinstein, a group of people knew about his predatory behavior. Why was this never revealed until the New York Times and the New Yorker released articles on it?

BR: It’s important to realize that the power that enables Harvey Weinstein to do what he does is also the same power that enables him either actively or passively, explicitly or implicitly, to keep people silent and complicit. So, even if other people were aware, they either feared the consequences of being on the wrong side [of Weinstein] … We put powerful people on a pedestal, and we find it very hard to believe that someone who’s so successful, so smart, so talented, so good at what he does can do these kinds of things. We get wrapped up in the aura.

MW: When powerful men have a long history of harassment it’s not just those individual men that are implicated, but also others who enable or at least failed to report the behavior. We can’t know or we may never know the details of those individuals’ choices, but we can speculate that it’s likely they faced some fear or uncertainty as well: ‘What does it mean for my career if I speak up about this?’