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Women are speaking up about sexual harassment. Is a sea change coming?

Women are breaking their silence about sexual harassment, with news breaking daily about celebrities and public figures. When will it be safe for women across the workforce to speak out? Judy Woodruff gets perspectives from attorney Lynne Bernabei, Jocelyn Frye of Center for American Progress and Lin Farley, author of "Sexual Shakedown" and Megan Twohey of The New York Times.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The revelations and allegations about sexual harassment and, in some cases, assault have been coming almost hourly.

    Just as the news about Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore was published yesterday, we learned of alleged sexual misconduct by the popular comedian Louis C.K. Today, he admitted to that behavior, saying he had long tried to run from his actions, and apologized for it. “The hardest regret to live with,” he said, “is what you have done to hurt someone else.”

    Much of the attention has been focused on celebrities and public figures, but we want to expand that to what this moment may mean for women in all parts of American society.

    Lin Farley is an author, journalist and noted feminist. She’s credited with coining the term sexual harassment in the 1970s. Jocelyn Frye specializes in women’s rights and economic issues at the Center for American Progress. Megan Twohey is one of the reporters who broke the Harvey Weinstein story for The New York Times. And Lynne Bernabei is an attorney in Washington, D.C., who specializes in sexual harassment cases.

    And welcome, all of you, to the NewsHour.

    Lin Farley, I’m going to start with you.

    Do you think we have turned a corner?

  • Lin Farley:

    Well, we certainly are seeing something very different in the development of this issue.

    And that is the numbers of male harassers who are being prosecuted, who are being caught, who are admitting, like this fellow Louis saying, yes, I did it and I’m really sorry, this is all new. This is an extraordinary development in the history of the issue.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Jocelyn Frye, if we have turned some kind of a corner, why is that happening? What is making women, some women at least, feel freer to speak up, do you think?

  • Jocelyn Frye:

    I think that part of the change is that you see just an onslaught of women who have now come forward, who have taken the power of the numbers of people coming forward and said, you know, if she can do it, then I can do it.

    And I think that that has had a snowball effect, which is a positive development and is unlike prior cases where, you know, maybe you would have one incident and one person coming forward, and then a bunch of people jumping on top of that person.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Megan Twohey with The New York Times, as we said, you were one of the reporters who broke the original Harvey Weinstein story.

    Think about — talk for a moment about how hard it was to get those women to talk, to go public, and what’s happened since then.

  • Megan Twohey:

    Well, I mean, actually, and to go back to your first question, which was a good one, I think that’s what happened is you have seen the media step in on this issue and provide a platform for women to go public with allegations.

    But a real question here is, you know, there are supposed to be — at companies, there are H.R. departments that are supposed to be handling this issue. There are attorneys who step in when women come forward with allegations and often sort of help them reach settlements with their accusers.

    And I think what we’re seeing here, with the role that the media is playing now, is some questions about the failures of a system that’s supposed to be in place to protect these women in the workplace with lawyers.

    And so I think that, moving forward, the question is going to be, like, yes, a lot of women have been coming forward in the media, but what’s going to happen in the workplace in order for women to sort of be protected day in and day out as they do their jobs?

    And in terms of getting people to go on the record about this, about these issues, it’s really hard, in large part because there has been a system that has allowed sort of predators to continue acting largely unchecked, and that has silenced women, often through these settlements in which women will step forward, you know, with a complaint, and there are attorneys who swoop in and strike deals in which they get paid, but they have to remain silent.

    They can’t speak. And even when journalists come knocking on their door…

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, Lynne — I was just going to say, we have with us an attorney in Lynne Bernabei who does represent, has been representing these women.

    Has the system failed, as Megan Twohey said?

  • Lynne Bernabei:

     I think the system has failed, insofar as there is every profession, every racial group, every economic status is still subject to sexual harassment.

    I think what makes this point in history so important is part of healing from sexual harassment or sexual assault is women, largely women, being able to tell their stories and have somebody listen.

    One of the terrible things about this field is, nobody wants to hear them. And now people are listening to these stories over and over again about sexual assault, rape and sexual harassment.

    So I think we have to get the stories out there first, and then we can start talking about remedial measures.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Lin Farley, you have looked at women in — women in blue-collar jobs, so-called pink-collar jobs.

    How are their experiences with sexual harassment, sexual abuse different from some of these well-publicized stories about women in the entertainment industry, for example, or in the media?

  • Lin Farley:

    Well, I think, if it’s Angelina Jolie, it makes headlines. If it’s a woman on the assembly line at Grayson Heat Control, she doesn’t make headlines and it goes unnoticed and unseen.

    But I think what we have to really focus here on is, I have the long view. I have been at this 40 years. I think what is going to make for a change in the workplace for women is if we start to have parity between men and women as supervisors, managers, bosses, owners.

    That’s when you’re going to see a real sea change on the job for working women. What we have seen over the last 40 years is that court suits don’t do it, sexual harassment training hasn’t done it. Everything that’s been tried as an effort to stop sexual harassment has failed miserably.

    We have more victims now than ever before. What is going to make for a change is an equality in the workplace in terms of positions of power and authority. And I’m hoping that what we can see, because of the #MeToo, is women banding together to demand that, to say, no, no, no, we’re not going to promote another man, we’re going to promote a woman, and we’re see parity in the workplace.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Jocelyn Frye, that’s something women have been saying should be the case for a very long time.

    I think we would all agree that should be the way it is right now, but it’s not. Can we wait for that time? And, if not, what do we do in the meantime?

  • Jocelyn Frye:

    Well, I don’t think we have time to wait, but what we can do is hopefully take advantage of this moment to do some of the things that Lin was talking and others were talking about.

    We do need to focus on, how do we create equity in the workplace, but we also need to recognize that, in every workplace, it starts from the leadership at the top. Sexual harassment cuts across all industries at all levels, low-income women, women of color, lots of blue-collar jobs.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Right.

  • Jocelyn Frye:

    And the reality is that sexual harassment has been around for decades.

    So, it is about changing the culture of the workplace, which doesn’t happen overnight, but it does mean trying to attack it at every level, and it has to be rooted in equality, the notion that everybody is equal, everybody deserves to be treated fairly. And it means also making sure that our supervisors, all of the folks in the workplace, have equity.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Lynne Bernabei, back to you, as someone, again, who looks at these cases up close, who hears these women’s stories firsthand, what can change? I mean, what has held them back in the past from coming forward, and how does that — how is that going to change?

  • Lynne Bernabei:

    I think we need more women in positions of management. I think we need a critical mass of women in management, not just a token.

    And I think people will come forward if they think there is something to change. It happens all the time. And I think we need women in management to give people courage that that will happen.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    But right now, that is not the way it is. It’s mostly men who are most of the managers.

  • Lynne Bernabei:

    Yes, you’re right.

    And I think that’s why this talk of banding together, the #MeToo campaign, all the campaigns to bring women together to sort of create that change or break through this sort of veil of silence on this issue, is going to be the most important thing we can gain from this series of scandals.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Megan Twohey, going back to the women you have talked to and then other reporting you have done, what will it take to give these women the courage to speak up and lose the fear, the very natural fear of losing their job, of being shunned, not believed, and so on?

  • Megan Twohey:

    Right. Well, that’s a good question.

    I mean, in terms of our coverage of Harvey Weinstein, I think it’s important to point out that there were many women who stepped forward over the years. We were able to document five settlements, and the number is growing since our first story, who had stepped forward, women who worked for him, young assistants, other people, other female employees in the company, actresses who had crossed paths with him in the workplace, and who stepped forward alleging that there had been sexual misconduct on his part.

    And what was the response? It was for basically lawyers to swoop in, and, sometimes, lawyers who straddled both him as an individual and the company, and basically pay these women off, in exchange for their silence, and create a situation where they could be — basically face legal damages if they spoke out.

    And so you had this, like, repeated pattern in which he was able to continue operating unchecked. And these women, so they were stepping forward in their workplaces, and they kept being swept under the rug, and he kept continuing to act as a predator.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    I just want to finally ask the other three of you, Lin Farley, to you first, to women listening who have experienced something and they feel that they’re in a field where they’re not sure there is going to be support out there, what should make them feel confident they can speak out now?

  • Lin Farley:

    Well, I think, again, solidarity. I think women have to band together and stick up for each other.

    But I would like to throw out something, too, which I think is important, is, teenage girls all across this country look for jobs in the fast food industry. It’s an industry that is rampant with sexual harassment. They have used it as a technique to keep high job turnover. They don’t have to deal with unionization. They don’t have to deal with raising wages.

    Now, these are kids, frequently working-class kids, who need the job. They’re not out there for the experience. They have been kicked out of the house or they come from a family that’s alcoholic. And they desperately need the work.

    And you have male managers across the board taking advantage of these kids and ensuring that their first job experience is one of misery and virtually prostitution.

    “I will give you this job, honey, if you’re nice to me, if you will do whatever, whatever, whatever.”

    I think we really need to focus on not just the Angelina Jolies and the Gretchen Carlsons, but to what’s happening to teenage girls all across this country in the fast food industry. And I think these kids really need help.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And as we focus, Jocelyn Frye, we should focus on them and on other women who may feel they are in a part of our economy, our society where they’re just not seen.

  • Jocelyn Frye:

    Right. Absolutely.

    And what we know from the data is that women in a number of low-wage jobs, particularly the service sector, are particularly vulnerable to sexual harassment. And I think it is important to communicate that people can speak up, that they can gain power in numbers.

    But it’s also important for employers to take responsibility.

  • Judy Woodruff: 

    Yes.

  • Jocelyn Frye:

    You know, every employer has an interest in making sure that their workplaces are free of harassment. And their hands are not tied.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Finally, Lynne Bernabei, people talk about H.R., human resources departments, but they, in essence, work for the boss. They work for the people who own the company, the business.

  • Lynne Bernabei:

    Yes, they do.

    That’s why I think it’s so important for women to band together in organizations, look for advocacy groups, look for professional groups of women in the same profession, look for lawyers who practice in this area, journalists who will report on their problems.

    Look to expand the public consciousness in a way that will ultimately protect them more than H.R. H.R. does work for management and is often part of the problem.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Some practical advice, as we watch this unfolding story. It’s more than a story. It’s real lives affected all over the country.

    I want to thank all four of you, Lynne Bernabei, Jocelyn Frye, Lin Farley, Megan Twohey. Thank you so much.

  • Lynne Bernabei:

    Thank you.

  • Jocelyn Frye:

    Thank you.

  • Lin Farley:

    Thank you.

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