It’s been just over a year since the #MeToo movement began to spread virally, on the heels of the initial allegations of sexual misconduct by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Since that time, more than 200 men in prominent positions have been brought down after public allegations of sexual harassment. While this may seem like a tidal change, it’s important to be reminded that the kinds of problems brought to light by the #MeToo movement are highly pervasive, not just in entertainment but in many other fields. A recent book by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine provides an extensive overview of sexual harassment research studies. They find that sexual harassment is widespread across virtually every sector, and that the incidence of sexual harassment has not changed appreciably in the past three decades. The book references an extensive 2003 study based on some 86,000 respondents, showing that, on average, 58% of women experienced sexually harassing behavior at work. When we consider the shockingly large number of women whose personal and professional lives are damaged by sexual harassers in the workplace, the number of prominent men who recently lost their jobs because of #MeToo seems ridiculously small.
The breadth of this problem extends not only across industry sectors, but also across time. Sexual harassment was considered an offense two millennia ago in ancient Rome; in the U.S., workplace sexual harassment has been illegal since the enactment of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
But even before Title VII, the American public had a taste of the interplay between power and sex through one of its most famous icons, Marilyn Monroe. Born Norma Jeane Mortenson in 1926, Marilyn Monroe was the most popular sex symbol of the 1950s. The complex relationship between sex and power manifested itself both in her personal life – from multiple marriages to highly visible and powerful men, to her well-known affair with President John F. Kennedy – and in her professional life: sexuality was a theme in many of her movies, but it also influenced her career in ways that are eerily similar to the stories we are hearing through the #MeToo movement.
In fact, it was a young 27-year-old Monroe who went on record in 1953 with a story titled “Wolves I have known” that appeared in the January issue of Motion Picture and Television Magazine, in which she described patterns of sexual harassment that have been well-known for as long as Hollywood has existed, and that are virtually identical to the stories we are hearing today.
The story of Marilyn Monroe reaches beyond the entertainment industry, touching on a number of uncomfortable themes that are all too familiar: disrespect, abuse and harassment, and the havoc that these behaviors wreak on the emotional, physical and professional wellbeing of women in the workforce. Whether you are a history buff, a movie aficionado, or simply someone who wants to gain an historical perspective on issues that plague today’s professional women – from pay gap to imposter syndrome – you might enjoy reading the book Blonde, published 18 years ago by award-winning novelist Joyce Carol Oates. Blonde is a Marilyn Monroe biography cast as a novel, which has been described as “perhaps the most ferocious fictional treatise ever written on the uninhabitable grotesqueness of femininity.”
You might also want to get your hands on a copy of the script of Love is Blonde, a play by Italian playwright Argia Coppola based on Oates’ novel. The play, which opened in Italy last year to great reviews and has been granted exclusive rights for a forthcoming U.S. production, features two actresses who play the characters of Norma Jeane Mortenson and her alter ego, Marilyn Monroe. Although Coppola began working on Love is Blondewell before the #MeToo movement gained momentum, her description of the play should resonate with anyone interested in these topics: “The life of Marilyn works as a mirror for women today… [Love is Blonde] is the story of every woman today calling out for the same opportunities and justice as men. ”
There is ample evidence that sexual harassment in the workplace, aside from being socially repugnant, has strong negative consequences on professional women, and, in turn, on companies and society as a whole: there are many studies showing that sexual harassment in the workplace – in addition to disrupting the psychological and physical wellbeing of its victims – also leads to decreased job satisfaction and decreased retention, with a resulting tangible hit on a company’s bottom line.
Why, given its documented negative impact on individuals and corporations alike, is sexual harassment still such a problem? One significant factor may be the relationship between power and sexual harassment: a recent Forbesarticle summarizes several factors that make people in powerful positions more likely to harass individuals in a subordinate role; the power disparity discourages victims from filing complaints for fear of retribution, and it often gives the perpetrators greater impudence and immunity.
Finally, although there are cases of women being the sexual harasser, the vast majority of sexual harassers are men. This does not mean that the vast majority of men are sexual harassers, but it means that the burden of solving this problem should fall on the shoulders of men. If you are a man, you should thank the women who have had the courage to speak up about these deplorable acts, and take it as a call to action: educate yourself about the extent and severity of the problem, read articles and books that provide tips on how you can deal with sexual harassment in the workplace, and check your own behavior to make sure you are part of the solution and not part of the problem.