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     Complicit Bias: Sexual Harassment and Communities That Sustain It

Complicit Bias: Sexual Harassment and Communities That Sustain It

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For decades, the euphemistic “director’s couch” described the extra audition female actors were expected to master before a part in a movie might be offered. More than just couches, but swimming pools, hot tubs, beds, kitchens, and more served as props whereby women were grabbed, poked, fondled, squeezed, masturbated upon (or coerced to watch) and even raped. Is Harvey Weinstein alone? Surely not; Hollywood is undergoing a soft purge right now. However, these conditions define a problem far deeper and wider in our society than the debased behavior of Mr. Weinstein. News about Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., and others: Charley Rose and Matt Lauer indicate a more profound problem behind the camera.

Yet, we would be blind to misread sexual harassment and assault in the workplace as a lone Hollywood phenomenon. These recent reports may be surprising by their utter gravity, but they are not limited to the world of actors and actresses. Sexual harassment, including quid pro quos for promotion and advancement, persists in other work environments: government, academia, law firms, the corporate sphere and elsewhere. Hollywood scratches the surface, but it alone does not define the problem.

For all of the coverage about sexual harassment in recent weeks, reports lack an accounting for complicity and workplace cultural norms. They fail to probe why certain environments foster harassment while others do not. Sometimes news reports address why women do not come forward. Rarely do reports concentrate on why witnesses and co-workers do not come forward to shut down apparent and known harassment. I’m not talking about hypothetical situations. Rather, known instances of sexually inappropriate conduct goes unchecked by friends, co-workers, and bosses.

Unexamined are the challenging issues related to why other women (and men) who witness abuse do not speak up, even when they have the power to do so—such as seniority over their offending colleagues. For that matter, why do senior administrators and executives ignore reported instances of sexual harassment?

Many years ago, as a new law professor at a former institution, barely three months into my new tenure-track position, I observed a male colleague forcefully grab a female student’s arm and lick her at a law school fundraiser. The center stage of this was a pie-throwing contest. My colleague invited himself to lick the residue of cream clinging to the student’s arm by twisting it behind her back, and placing his mouth on her as she walked by.

I was mortified and by the expression on the student’s face—she was too. She looked outraged at first, and after realizing it was a professor, helplessness stretched across her face. My former colleague’s behavior was inappropriate and repulsive, stunning for its brazenness and lack of professionalism.

By Monday morning, I reported the licking incident to my dean—who happened to be a woman. I expected that the dean would make an inquiry and investigate. I came forward not just for the one student, but also because I cared about institutional culture, including my law school and its environment. The bottom line, students deserve to participate in the life of the school without the threat of being groped by their professors. I too wanted to work in a healthy environment where students were safe from drunken advances of their professors.

By coming forward, I had not anticipated the enormous public backlash, the ultimate firing of the dean, the harassment that I would encounter, and the institution’s paralysis. Then again, I also did not anticipate that by standing up, new leadership would eventually come to the law school, the harassing colleague would ultimately isolate himself, and the law school would be compelled to examine its culture. . . .Continue reading


Huffington Post Article: Complicit Bias: Sexual Harassment and Communities That Sustain It

Michele Goodwin, Contributor
Winning Author, Advocate, Lecturer, and Social Commentator