When Matt Lauer was fired from his perch of more than two decades at the Today show after allegations of sexual harassment and rape, among those who celebrated were those who fondly remembered Ann Curry, a former host on the show. “I hope @AnnCurry is drinking Dom today because she sure earned it,” tweeted Roxane Gay, expressing a typical sentiment.
Curry, promoted to the co-anchor seat in 2011, quickly fell afoul of what was described as “the boys club” that runs the popular morning show. Senior staff made a blooper reel of her on-air screw-ups. Others made fun of her wardrobe choices. Lauer was obviously uncomfortable with her on the air, and it was reported that he was behind her ultimate ouster.
As far as we know, what Curry did not experience was sexual harassment. The same is true for Adaora Udoji, Farai Chideya, and Celeste Headlee, three short-lived co-hosts with John Hockenberry, the former lead voice of the public-radio news show The Takeaway. They too experienced severe bullying and either left or lost their on-air perches, a story recounted in the initial New York magazine piece detailing Hockenberry’s alleged sexual preying on younger, less powerful staffers.
More than a few have wondered why sexual harassment suddenly is taking center stage at this moment. Masha Gessen, for instance, in The New Yorker pointed to other sexual panics that occurred during troubled eras, and suggested that the attention suddenly paid to the issue is “the fear of a world careening out of control.” Meanwhile, David Dayen at the New Republic suggested that the ongoing scandal stood in for “the long, slow abandonment of the rule of law in America,” most recently the lack of punishment for powerful malefactors of the housing and financial crisis. Others suspect it’s the ongoing insult that Donald Trump, dogged by allegations of sexual harassment, was still elected president.
But the experiences of Curry, Udoji, Chideya, and Headlee—again, none were sexually harassed, but they were most certainly harassed and mistreated—offers another answer to the question of why now. Sexual harassment is a rallying cry, standing in for all the frustrations, insults, and second-class treatment women experience at work—an all-too-common experience for all too many women.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. The Great Recession was going to usher in a period of great feminist triumph. Any number of pundits and behavioral psychologists stepped forward to claim that the economic crash was a testosterone-fueled catastrophe. Men initially took the brunt of the layoffs as male dominated fields like construction all but came to a halt. The new jobs, we were told, would favor women’s touchy-feely skills, our (supposedly) more collaborative, less combative natures. This was so our moment that Hanna Rosin published a book proclaiming The End of Men.
In 2017 we know this was so much wishful thinking. Men remain firmly entrenched in power. Those who peddled tales of women’s imminent takeover of the professional world simply ignored or glossed over inconvenient facts. In the United States, female workforce participation peaked around the millennium and then fell. As for the pay gap, it remains alive and well. A survey released earlier this year by the Economic Policy Institute found that women earned, on average, 22 percent less than men per hour when controlled for race, experience, and education. Men earned more than women whether they worked as kindergarten teachers or as metal fabricators. As for those collaborative skills, they weren’t so in demand when their possessors were no longer in the first blush of youth; a 2015 survey published by the National Bureau of Economic Statistics discovered “robust evidence of age discrimination in hiring against older women.”
It goes on and on. Start-ups headed by women receive a mere 5 percent of venture funding. According to Amanda Cohen, the executive chef and owner of New York City’s Dirt Candy, a mere 13 percent of the “major” restaurants reviewed in The New York Times in the past year had kitchens “run by women.” The Women’s Media Center discovered women working in television news fared worse in 2016 than in 2015—this despite the fact Hillary Clinton was running for president at the time.
Workplace conditions reflect this reality. Women’s skills are discounted or underestimated repeatedly. A Swedish study released earlier this year discovered that when venture capitalists were evaluating deals, they considered male supplicants “young and promising,” while deeming their female peers “young, but inexperienced.” Men who change jobs earn more money than those who do not, but women who do the same earn less, leading Catalyst to theorize that men are promoted on promise but women need to prove themselves over and over again. Failure by one sex but not the other is judged mercilessly: If the patient of a male surgeon dies on the operating table, peers will continue to refer patients to him, but they won’t do the same for a female surgeon. Speaking up in a meeting? Good luck getting a word in edgewise: One study shows that male Supreme Court justices are are three times more likely to interrupt a female colleague than a male one.
Over time, this leaves many women discouraged. According to a 2015 survey by Price WaterhouseCoopers, 71 percent of millennial women said they believed organizations talked a good game when it came to diversity, but often didn’t practice what they preached. A little more than half agreed with the same statement when asked in 2011.
Yet much of the day-to-day demeaning treatment women experience is nebulous—and easily subject to second-guessing. It’s hard to prove definitively it happened to you—after all, to go back to that medical study, the patient did die, right? Or maybe the idea you pitched for venture funding simply wasn’t good enough. If a woman complains, it’s quite possible she’ll be told she’s the problem: Celeste Headlee, for one, says she was informed by senior management that Hockenberry’s on- and off-air bullying occurred because she didn’t do her job particularly well.
The United States is a society where we are forever told that systemic inequities and discrimination can be combated individually. When it comes to women and work, we’ve been told the problem is within our ability to fix. Sheryl Sandberg told us to Lean In, and others counseled about the need to get men to contribute equally at home. But the idea that all this would change things substantially on the work front was just a theory. Few thought to mention that we could lean in till we fell over, get our husband to both contribute to buying the bacon and frying it up in a pan, and still find ourselves behind our male counterparts in everything from wages to status. (Few also thought to mention that leaning out was a perfectly rational, if somewhat self-destructive, response to all this.)
Sexual harassment gives the lie to the women’s workplace-self-help industrial complex while simultaneously, and forgive me for putting it this way, offering something concrete to grab onto. He pinched my ass does not leave room for matters you could have handled differently, or mistakes that were made. He showed me his dick is not particularly ambiguous, nor does it leave room to ponder what you could have done to inadvertently encourage such a thing. You didn’t ask, and it happened anyway. There is, in the vast majority of cases, very little you could do to prevent it from happening at all.
Almost 50 years after the second wave of the feminist movement began, women are still not taken as seriously as men. Sexual harassment does not occur in a vacuum. It occurs in settings where the contributions of women are systemically undervalued, their achievements derided, where obstacles are put in their path at almost every turn. Sexual harassment is about sex, but it is also about power, who possesses it, and who does not. No wonder we’re so enraged.
Helaine Olen is the author of Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry and co-author of The Index Card: Why Personal Finance Doesn’t Have to be Complicated.