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Sheila Nevins, the president of HBO Documentary Films, has been the target of sexual harassment like innumerable professional women across all industries. But with a groundswell of voices declaring #MeToo, Nevins sees hope for young women to escape the same treatment. She joins Judy Woodruff to speak out about her experience.
Now the fallout from sexual harassment scandals and the calls for change.
We are continuing our own series of discussions with women across American society, and with differing perspectives.
Tonight, we hear from one of the most prominent women calling the shots in television filmmaking. Sheila Nevins is the president of HBO Documentary Films, and has green-lit more than 1,000 films over three decades. Before that, she worked at ABC, CBS, and PBS.
She's also the author of the new book, "You Don't Look Your Age and Other Fairy Tales."
I spoke with her earlier today.
Sheila Nevins, thank you for talking with us.
Thank you for having me.
Were you surprised by the Harvey Weinstein revelations?
You had dealt with him professionally?
I wasn't surprised in any way by temperament or anger or certain kind of language. But I was surprised by the physical stories, the stories of sexual, physical abuse. I really was surprised.
What have you known of sexual harassment in this industry?
You know, I'm old. I grew up and the rules of the game were different. I didn't know — I really didn't know that I wasn't to be touched and manhandled. I finally understand the meaning of the word.
I really didn't know what that was. I thought, to succeed, I had to be somewhat seductive and complicit. So I would argue that, in the '60s, when I got out of Yale and I got out of school and I wanted a job, I think I wasn't abused because I was active sexually and complicit.
I now have sort of reformed all of that, because I realize what I consider to be acceptable was really abuse, and I recovered because I wanted a job so badly.
But now I feel everything is out of hand and that there is just — it's enough. It's enough, and women have to be together. I didn't have any women to go to. I didn't have anyone to cry to, but now I think when you cry together, you make a louder noise, and I feel like I'm happy to add my voice.
Did you feel or did you know there were other women going through the same thing when you were?
No, because when I began in this business, there were very few women in the business, so there was no way that I would know. It was a man's world and the only way — I didn't — no, I didn't know. I didn't know.
I mean, I used to sit at screenings at unknown, unnamed, I should say, networks, and someone put their hands down my back. Or I — I didn't know to remove them. I thought if I removed them, someone else would get my job. But it was the truth in the '60s. It was the truth.
Is it accurate to say that you were suffering in silence?
In retrospect, it intimidated me, but I was so ambitious, that I pushed that aside.
I mean, I hurt. It hurt. I mean, it hurt mentally in a way, but I didn't know. I didn't know. You know, it's like getting T.B. before there's a shot for it or getting polio before there's Salk. I didn't know.
How was I to know? Who was my role model? Who was I going to look to? There was no Gloria Steinem. There was no women's movement. There was no one telling me that I was equal. I actually thought I wasn't equal.
Is there any doubt in your mind that things have changed?
Yes, there's no doubt in my mind that things have changed.
I think it has to do with the group of voices, as opposed to solos. Solo is a very lonely thing. I don't know how to sing, but I have to use that word. Solo, you do what you can do. Together, you're warriors, and I think it makes a big difference. I wasn't Wonder Woman.
How has it changed? Because there are still these stories that are coming out.
I think that men are put on warning, you know, keep off the grass sign now, for want of a better thing.
You can't. You can't anymore, and you should never have. But now you can't, because your job is in jeopardy, your life is in jeopardy, your career is in jeopardy.
But some of the Harvey Weinstein allegations are pretty recent.
That's so criminal as to not even be part of the conversation.
In other words, I always think that whatever that was, was — it wasn't just intimidation. It was brutal. It was physical. It was — it seems criminal. I don't know.
But I think the abuse, the sexual abuse, the harassment, it's enough. It's time. It's time women get together and say, enough. If it happened to you, it happened to me, it happened to her. It's not going to happen to my daughter.
As head of HBO Documentaries, you made the decision, you and your colleagues, to cancel the series by Mark Halperin, political journalist working now for NBC, allegations about him.
Was there any hesitation about making that decision?
I can't answer that, because, in fact, I'm — that's not my area. I don't really know of that decision. I mean, I know of the decision, of course, but I don't know what led to make that decision.
But I think HBO has become a place of zero tolerance. There are a lot of women in power. And I think we would have been angry had it gone ahead.
You said, I saw in one interview, that there weren't human resources departments.
No, there was no one to go to. There was no — I don't know the word sexual harassment. I don't think I knew it until about 25 years ago.
But there are human resources departments now, and yet women are saying they don't feel safe necessarily going there. They worry they are still going to have a job in jeopardy if they go forward.
They have to go forward. There have to be enough women in power that if you go forward on behalf of what happened with a male colleague, that everyone will join you, and you will not lose your job.
There may have been a time when you were afraid you would lose your job. But I don't really know. I don't know. It's different. The rules are different. There is a vaccine against it now. We're not going to get that disease anymore. We're just not going to get it.
You really do think things have changed?
I absolutely think it. I absolutely think it.
I think that's what revolutions are about. It's been quiet for a long time. I mean, it's very sad, really, that women have been subjected to that for so long and have had to be so silent about it because there was no place to go. It's hard being a woman in the workplace. Harassment is very deep.
It's emotional. It doesn't only have to be sexual. It can go into other things. Not being heard, not being reckoned with, not being treated equally, not getting equal pay. This catapults sort of all those other things into the spotlight. Men will be careful. They will be careful of us. They will respect us. They won't hurt us.
I'm asking you about this, Sheila Nevins, because I still hear young women saying the workplace is still so unbalanced, with men holding by far the balance of power and women not, that there's not a check on so many men who feel they can…
I don't think it's going to happen again. A man would have to be pretty stupid to step forward right now.
I mean, he would have to be pretty — he really would have to be a psychopath, because he would have to be willing to lose everything he has, his scripts, his jobs, his wife, his respectability.
I don't think — I don't know where they work. I know where I work, but I think that there is — it's the time to fight back.
So what is your advice today to young women who experience something and aren't sure they should come forward?
They have to come forward, because there are enough women in power now that can hire them, that can listen to them, and there are enough people in positions of — I mean, human resources sounds like a funny word, but there are enough people in the workplace who will join with you and fight back.
You're not alone. Women are not alone anymore. They're just not alone. And I think — I wouldn't be talking to you if I thought that I was alone. I feel like you and I are on the same page.
You know, at a certain point, you're old enough in this business that no guy's going to make a pass at you, OK? But that shouldn't be the reason, should it? And I think that equality that you get as you get older, because you're not a — quote — "sex object" anymore, has to pervade youth and young women, and it will.
It just will. It has to. Come to us. We will help them.
For sure, come to us.
Sheila Nevins, thank you very much.
Thank you for asking me these questions. I really appreciate it.
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