California Forum

After #MeToo, then what? We can’t hashtag our way out of sexual harassment

It came from the east, sweeping through California with a vengeance. And no, I’m not just talking about the onslaught of wine country wildfires.


The New York Times’ and The New Yorker’s Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment investigations have ignited so much uproar in this state that it’s hard to know where to start sifting the ashes. Hollywood women have stopped covering for Hollywood men. Capitol women have said #Enough to sexism in California political circles. #MeToo stories of sexual harassment have overwhelmed Facebook and Twitter feeds from the state’s academia to Silicon Valley.

If I were a male manager with a history of hitting on subordinates, or a male producer with a history of mauling the talent, or a male politician with a history of getting drunk and cornering young female aides at political fundraisers, I’d be #Worried. Names are already being named, on and off the record. And more will come out. This won’t stop with Weinstein.

Nor will the underlying issue soon go away. Workplace inequity and sexual harassment are evergreen flashpoints. This is the kind of toxic thing that happens when only half of the population (the male half) gets about 80 percent of the powerful jobs.

The more dominant men are in a field, the more likely the women in it are to run into a Harvey Weinstein. And Donald Trump’s presidency has only worsened the situation. This is, after all, a president who has been accused multiple times of varying degrees of sexual misconduct and who was caught on tape bragging about grabbing strangers’ vaginas.

And this, too, is a president whose chief competency appears to be sowing discord. Black and white, rich and poor, Christian and Muslim, native and immigrant, North and South, conservative and liberal, rural and urban, male and female – less than a year has passed since Trump’s election, and already he has us all at each others’ throats.

So it has been great, for a change, to see Americans by the hundreds of thousands stand up for the dignity of women. Still, I’ve found myself wishing that California’s outrage at the Weinstein scandal could be less like a runaway wildfire and more like a controlled burn.

Not that public statements and social media posts don’t count. Being bullied is awful and that’s what sexual harassment is about, bullying and domination. Even with clear sexual harassment laws and progressive courts, such fights are daunting, particularly in high-demand fields such as tech, politics and show biz.

It matters that this moment’s bullies have been called out online and by powerful voices: Ashley Judd. Gwyneth Paltrow. Angelina Jolie. Reese Witherspoon. Molly Ringwald. And it matters that more than 140 lobbyists, lawmakers and lawyers in the nation’s most influential state capital – this one – weighed in last week with an open letter decrying the frat-boy culture in and around California’s statehouse.

But after the solidarity and shared outrage, then what? I’ve been in the workplace a long time – in a line of work with its own legendary frat boys – and what I’ve found is that righteous anger and sympathy only get you so much satisfaction.

There may be a jolt of moral superiority in retweeting a hashtag or telling how you, too, were preyed on by sicko bosses. But ladies, I’ll tell you what I tell my daughters: Moral superiority is the consolation prize life offers to losers.

Sexual harassment is about the abuse of power. Women need leverage, not pity, if they want it to stop.

That means a change, not just in attitudes but in numbers. Just 26 women are serving in the California Legislature right now out of 120 members. The last time female participation in state government was this low, Pete Wilson was in the governor’s office. Why aren’t women getting women to run?

It certainly is unsettling that harassment claims by Capitol staff have cost California taxpayers some $850,000, as The Bee’s Alexei Koseff has reported. But the records so far have yielded only five such claims in more than two decades.

If dawg-like behavior is an epidemic in the Senate and Assembly hallways, more women need to report it. Elected officials can’t be fired, unlike staff, but leadership can expel them with a two-thirds vote of their peers, or suspend them. If voters knew what the bad apples were doing here on the public’s time, maybe they’d send someone else to Sacramento.

“We will take all complaints brought to us seriously,” Speaker Anthony Rendon vowed last week, “and we will ensure there is no retaliation.” Rendon’s a serious person. People who are being harassed should take him up on that.

In show business, an annual San Diego State University study found that women last year made up only 17 percent of all the directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors on the 250 top grossing domestic movies. That was down two percentage points from the year before.

When women don’t tell their own stories, men fill the vacuum, and not just in the movies. Readers, a 2012 report measuring women’s “share of voice” in opinion pages, TV punditry, Wikipedia entries and so on, found that even in new media, only 33 percent of op-eds were penned by women. In traditional media, such as this newspaper, women’s share was a mewling 20 percent.

Do I sound unsympathetic? I hope not. I know what working women go through.

If I had a dollar for every female friend kept out of a top job because the men in charge got together and decided she was pushy; for every woman colleague cornered by some wasted manager at a newsroom Christmas party; for every intern led to believe that if she’d just be nice, that divorced male editor would hire her. Well, if I had a dollar for all those things, I wouldn’t be writing this now because I’d be busy rolling in dollars.

But the Weinsteins of the world aren’t the only cause of this runaway fire, even by California’s egalitarian standards. And justice for women isn’t just about threatening to burn down the courthouse.

Shawn Hubler: 916-321-1646, @ShawnHubler