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What should accountability for sexual misconduct look like?

More allegations of sexual misconduct in high-profile industries have led to resignations, suspensions and firings. What kind of consequences should the accused face? Lisa Desjardins recaps the latest political complaints and Judy Woodruff sits down with Rebecca Traister of New York Magazine and Maya Raghu of the National Women's Law Center to discuss what recourse should be available to victims.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Let’s turn now to the almost nonstop fallout from sexual misconduct revelations.

    In our latest PBS NewsHour poll, done in conjunction with Marist College and NPR, we asked about sexual harassment. More than 20 percent of people, including 35 percent of all women, say they have experienced sexual harassment or abuse in the workplace. Nearly 30 percent of all people say they have personally seen someone harassed or abused.

    Meanwhile, the allegations continue to reverberate.

    Lisa Desjardins begins with this report.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    There was news nearly every hour, including President Trump’s first personal words about Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, stressing Moore’s denial of allegations of sexually assaulting teen girls.

    Earlier, the spotlight had been on another powerful man. Michigan Democrat John Conyers, now the latest accused of sexual misconduct, is the top Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, which oversees the justice system.

    Overnight, BuzzFeed News reported that, in 2014, a former staffer filed a complaint alleging Conyers fired her for rejecting his sexual advances. The report says he settled that case with money from his office budget, and that other staffers filed affidavits that Conyers touched them inappropriately and regularly asked for sexual favors.

    In a statement this afternoon, the Michigan Democrat vehemently denied the allegations, and insisted he settled the case to — quote — “save all involved from the rigors of protracted litigation.”

    And in yet another story about U.S. lawmakers, Colorado Congresswoman Democrat Diana DeGette told MSNBC that a fellow House member physically assaulted her years ago.

  • Diana Degette:

    I was in an elevator, and then-Congressman Bob Filner tried to pin me to the door of the elevator and kiss me. And I pushed him away.

  • Lisa Desjardins:

    Filner became mayor of San Diego in 2012. He left that office under a cloud of different sexual harassment allegations.

    And, finally, there was news about Minnesota Senator Al Franken, accused of inappropriate touching or kissing. NBC released a letter it said was from several dozen women who worked with him on Saturday Night Live. They defended Franken, saying he treated them with respect.

    Complaints about members of Congress seldom become public because anyone filing a complaint must sign a nondisclosure agreement. And unlike most of the federal government, neither the Freedom of Information Act nor the Federal Records Act apply to Congress.

    So, members don’t need to keep e-mails or other records of what they do, nor make any of that publicly available.

    And Congress is far from alone. USA Today looked at America’s statehouses, and found that, in the last year, at least 40 state lawmakers in 20 states have been publicly accused by more than 100 people of sexual misconduct.

    And still more news. Late this afternoon, Disney Animation chief John Lasseter, one of Hollywood’s most powerful, announced a leave of absence from his job at Pixar following reports that he was known for grabbing and kissing women.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Lisa Desjardins.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    With resignations, suspensions and firings announced daily as new stories come to light, it is prompting ever more questions about what the consequences should be.

    We explore that now with Maya Raghu. She is senior counsel at the National Women’s Law Center and she focuses on women’s issues in the workplace, including sexual harassment. And Rebecca Traister, she is a writer-at-large for New York magazine and author of the book “All the Single Ladies- Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation.”

    And we welcome both of you to the program.

    Maya Raghu, I’m going to start with you.

    There are so many cases we’re hearing about now, so many accusations and now resignations and so forth. It’s coming very fast. But I want to ask you about what’s happening to the accused. Some of them are losing their jobs. Some of them are subject to legal prosecution, a few of them.

    How do we determine what should happen to these men?

  • Maya Raghu:

    So, you raise an excellent point, Judy, which is that there is what is happening and what should be happening.

    And really there are two forms of consequences or accountability here. There is the legal consequences, as you mention, and then there is this broader cultural accountability that is going to come from many different sources.

    So, in terms of legal consequences, obviously, as we have seen, many of those come from the employer. They can conduct an investigation, and they should conduct a thorough one when they receive complaints, and then, if this person is found to have engaged in that behavior, then they can have disciplinary consequences, including firing.

    They can also be sued by an individual victim if there was a sexual assault. But what accountability looks like really depends on what the victim looks like.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, let’s talk a little bit about that, Rebecca Traister.

    Setting aside a clear legal question here, how do we determine the degree of seriousness and what should happen to these men?

  • Rebecca Traister:

     Well, I don’t know that it’s our job to determine the degree of seriousness. In part, that is for the investigations.

    One of my anxieties about this moment is that it’s being produced by women coming forward and telling their stories of the harm done to them, but in part because of a media and the public’s immediate question, which is, what is going to happen to the guys? Are they going to resign? Are they going to be fired?

    And in part because, in some cases, employers are very quickly announcing that they’re going to fire a given person. I think that the conversation is shifting so swiftly to the harm being done to men. They’re losing their jobs. Their reputations are being damaged.

    But, in part, the focus on the immediate punishment and the immediate announcement of consequence means that we wind up talking more about the harm being done to the accused than the systematic and structural harm that’s clearly been done to the women who are making the allegations.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Very good point. And we will continue to think about that, Maya Raghu.

    It is the case, I think, that some of these women may make their own decisions based on what they see happening to these men. So, what is the recourse for a man, say — you know, whether he runs his own company or is a lower-level employee there, whether there is an H.R. department or not?

    Is there going to be a clear kind of recourse in these situations?

  • Maya Raghu:

    Many times, there are often isn’t, and that’s part of the reason that so many victims are afraid to come forward, because even though many companies do have H.R. departments or do have sexual harassment policies, and do have a complaint procedure, they’re not really effectively implemented.

    And sexual harassers aren’t being held accountable. So, people see that, and they see that, if they come forward, they are taking an enormous risk with their jobs and their reputations and their careers. And, in the end, people might just tell them, you’re lying, we’re not going to do anything about this, or we did an investigation, but this is someone who we want to protect.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And it does, Rebecca Traister, send a signal to these women, doesn’t it? If they’re making an accusation and nothing happens, which has been the case so much in the past, that’s going to be different than if they see consequences.

  • Rebecca Traister:

    Well, that’s the tricky part of this situation.

    So, the fact that this is a new phase of treatment of these kinds of issues, because, in fact, even in many of the specific cases we’re talking about, complaints have been made. People filed human resources complaints against Harvey Weinstein. There was a woman who went and complained of assault. Nothing happened, even though that was reported.

    The same was true certainly about Roger Ailes, where his harassment of women was detailed in a book, and nothing happened to him. Bill O’Reilly, the lawsuit brought by Andrea Mackris for sexual harassment was very public and widely reported.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Rebecca Traister:

    He kept his job.

    And so the fact that there are any consequences at all right now, in fact, is part of the reason that I think we do wind up focusing so much on repercussions, is, because this is a very new thing.

    I mean, look, a year ago, 16 women came forward and accused Donald Trump of assault, and he got elected president. We have been living in a no-consequences universe. And, yes, and it’s not just that someone might come forward and not get results and not have satisfaction, not see any consequences or repercussions. It’s that they might themselves might be published.

    Look at the story of Charlie Rose. In that Washington Post report yesterday, there’s one woman who tells a mutual friend, and she’s promptly fired by Charlie Rose.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Maya Raghu, is this going to make a difference in — the fact that these men are losing their jobs, is this going to make a difference in how comfortable women feel coming forward, or not?

  • Maya Raghu:

    Well, again, I think it might empower some women to come forward and make reports through formal systems.

    But, let’s remember, those systems in schools and workplaces have failed victims for so many years that it’s going to take a lot of work by workplaces, by leaders to rebuild trust and ensure that there is accountability for people who are harassers and predators.

    And, again, I want to go back to my point about what accountability looks like depends on who the victim is. So, we are hearing about very high-profile people in media and entertainment, both women who are coming forward and the people that are being held accountable and accused.

    But there are people of color, women in low-wage jobs, LGBTQ people who are terrified of coming forward, who don’t have the power to come forward, and whose stories aren’t being told. And, frankly, the peers in those industries, like the music industry, aren’t holding the perpetrators accountable.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And those are, in fact, many of the stories that we want to continue to try to focus on here on the NewsHour.

    Maya Raghu with the National Women’s Law Center, Rebecca Traister, we thank you both.

  • Maya Raghu:

    Thank you.

  • Rebecca Traister:

    Thank you.

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