The media storm unleashed by Alyssa Milano has unearthed many experiences of harassed and abused women. It has broken the shame many women felt and feel and that kept them from telling their stories. And it has successfully shown how widespread the phenomenon is. Women who faced harassment can be sure that they are not alone and that it is reasonable to assume their perpetrator has more than one victim.
I confess that the scale of the problem did not surprise me. My default assumption is that every woman I meet has, at some point in her life, received unwelcome advances. I am actually a bit worried that signaling the number of women affected also signals the number of men guilty, which may make committing harassment look like a majority phenomenon, and thereby more acceptable to some. This effect has been proven for unconscious bias: upon learning that their bias affects the majority, not few people feel vindicated in having it.
From the economist’s point of view, harassment is a violation of property right, the property right to one’s own body. Harassment and abuse are theft; theft of bodily integrity. They are still not persecuted with the same rigor as theft. Have you ever heard that a car owner has been suspected of consenting to the theft of his car because it had an attractive shiny metallic color? Do judges routinely ask what color the car was wearing? Have car owners lost any rights of denouncing theft because of how the cars were parked, where they were parked or when? Is car theft less of a theft even when a car owner has previously lied on the tax declaration?
But when a woman denounces sexual assault, all logic gets lost. Who, in his or her right mind, can assume that a hotel cleaning lady going about her job would welcome a butt naked guest jumping right at her mouth? Or that her right to denounce this changes with what she did or didn’t truthfully state in her immigration papers. Women’s property right to their own bodies is still bizarrely conditional in the twenty-first century.
Some women report the events, which is painful enough. It is when the institutions that are supposed to help do not have enough bite to protect them that I get really depressed. I would like to know how many of Weinstein’s victims reported the incidents, just to have the case go nowhere. In the end, Weinstein was convicted by the media, not public prosecution.
I feel safe where I work and live but not everybody can say the same. I have listened to too many credible accounts of affected women speaking up appropriately just to hear that they should not be trouble makers, or that theirs is a lost cause either way. Meanwhile more than one perpetrator perpetrates his rise across the ranks.
Because in many cases, power structures are stronger than the institutions meant to control their abuse. Modern corporations are not democratic. And some of them contain more feudalism than a medieval manor. It is hard to imagine the contrary, as a smooth running of business needs a focus on executive powers and sometimes single decision makers. But when power differences across levels are too big, along with disparate salary scales, we should be careful about the side effects. You can preach against retaliation as much as you want; if the hierarchy is steep enough, and networks entrenched, it will happen. Damage will be done and traces effaced well before you can look under the carpet.
What can be done? Power and salary distance should be and often are a function of ability, but marginal productivity is hard to measure. CEOs are not 300 times more productive than their average employee, but they earn on average this much more (in the US). Maybe because they are 300 times more powerful, and that is a situation worth looking at.
Top management often face external accountability through media and the public, but what about the upper middle? There is a lot to say for open doors and transparency requirements on files and decisions. Further, powerful staff associations can be productive for the firm and protective for corporate citizens.
But maybe we need more than this, because still things are falling through the cracks and due diligence sometimes strangely vanes. It could make sense to bring the powerful force of automation to some corporate policies, when for example a certain threshold number of independent accusations triggers automatic sanctions. Diversity can help disentangle the gender-power nexus. More women and gay men in more powerful positions would reassure us.
As for whether change is needed at all, the jury is not out any more. It has voted. #metoo.