Monday, January 3, 2011

Sexual harassment in Hollywood

A female reader writes: As another lady trying to make it in this industry, I was wondering if you had any advice on how to appropriately deal with male co-workers and bosses who act inappropriately? I'm incredibly lucky to have a (low-level) job in the television industry, but now I have a boss who just makes me feel uncomfortable on a daily basis. I don't want to risk my job by speaking up, since it is so hard nowadays to get any position on a show, but I hate having to put up with lingering hands on my shoulders and uncomfortable sexual comments that just shouldn't be said to anyone, anywhere. Any advice from your own experience or other folks in the industry?

I wish I could say that sexual harassment in Hollywood didn't happen all the time, but it does. I'm not sure if it's more common in film & TV than in other industries, but for what it's worth, a British study found last year that one in three women has reported being sexually harassed at work. I have heard of and experienced plenty of situations like what you've described, from unwanted touching and sleazy comments to being tasked with ordering hookers (a friend of mine really thought this was a normal assistant duty until she moved to a new company found a decent boss). Paradoxically, sometimes formality and propriety are required in Hollywood; God forbid you use the wrong sized brad, call an actress by the wrong nickname or say "just a sec" instead of "one moment please"...but other times you're assigned "projects" like taking shots or researching sex toys. Perhaps companies in Hollywood have such oversexed environments because we spend our days passing around scripts like I WANT TO FUCK YOUR SISTER, pitching dick jokes and seriously theorizing about whether a lesbian sex scene can get people to go see a creepy ballet thriller.

But that doesn't mean sexual harassment is acceptable - and we shouldn't grant Hollywood impunity from the law. Now, I'm not a legal scholar, nor an expert in sexual I figure this is a good opportunity for us all to brush up on the rules:

From the United Stated Department of Justice:
Sexual harassment occurs when employment decisions affecting an employee, such as hiring, firing, promotions, awards, transfers or disciplinary actions, result from submission to or rejection of unwelcome sexual conduct. Sexual harassment can also be any activity which creates an intimidating, hostile, or offensive work environment for members of one sex, whether such activity is carried out by a supervisor or by a co-worker. This could include such workplace conduct as displaying "pinup" calendars or sexually demeaning pictures, telling sexually oriented jokes, making sexually offensive remarks, engaging in unwanted sexual teasing, subjecting another employee to pressure for dates, sexual advances, or unwelcome touching.
From the EEOC (US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission):
Sexual harassment can occur in a variety of circumstances, including but not limited to the following:
  • The victim as well as the harasser may be a woman or a man. The victim does not have to be of the opposite sex.
  • The harasser can be the victim's supervisor, an agent of the employer, a supervisor in another area, a co-worker, or a non-employee.
  • The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct.
  • Unlawful sexual harassment may occur without economic injury to or discharge of the victim.
  • The harasser's conduct must be unwelcome.
It is helpful for the victim to inform the harasser directly that the conduct is unwelcome and must stop. The victim should use any employer complaint mechanism or grievance system available.
When investigating allegations of sexual harassment, EEOC looks at the whole record: the circumstances, such as the nature of the sexual advances, and the context in which the alleged incidents occurred. A determination on the allegations is made from the facts on a case-by-case basis.
Prevention is the best tool to eliminate sexual harassment in the workplace. Employers are encouraged to take steps necessary to prevent sexual harassment from occurring. They should clearly communicate to employees that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. They can do so by providing sexual harassment training to their employees and by establishing an effective complaint or grievance process and taking immediate and appropriate action when an employee complains.
The US DOJ offers the following "Action for victims":
  • Know your rights.
  • Tell the harasser that the behavior is unwelcome and must cease immediately.
  • Report such behavior immediately to the supervisor, or a higher level official.
  • Seek support from a friend or colleague.
  • Keep a written record, documenting as precisely as possible what happened, when it took place, the names of witnesses, your response, and any other information that may be helpful later.
  • Find out whether other employees have also been harassed and whether they could offer corroborating testimony.
  • Seek advice on how to deal with the situation from your Office of Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO), the Office of Professional Responsibility, or the Office of the Inspector General.
  • Find out what the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) Complaint process is.
  • Discuss options with an EEO Counselor or your representative.
  • File a complaint.
Now, I understand that telling your harasser that the behavior is unwelcome is a lot easier said than done. Like you said, you don't want to risk your job - and I know how hard it is to find a job in Hollywood. Still, you shouldn't feel like you can't do anything about it - and your boss shouldn't keep getting away with sexual harassment. If you feel like you simply can't talk to your boss about his illegal behavior, talk to your HR rep. (If you work on a show, then your HR person might be someone at the studio or production company.) You shouldn't have to quit - and know that it's illegal for your boss to retaliate and fire you for complaining - but I do believe that no job is worth being miserable...and as important as your job seems, there will be more out there. Never underestimate your own sanity and happiness. It might not hurt to tell your friends you're looking for a new job...maybe an opportunity will come up and you'll be able to land a new gig before quitting and living without a paycheck.

In terms of my own personal advice for dealing with this stuff, I do think that there's a difference between being felt up by your boss and being forced to hear inappropriate comments from male co-workers who don't have any power or authority over you. Maybe both are illegal, but while (I think) the first is worth filing a complaint with HR, the second one might not be. If you decide to try and survive the environment, I find that the best strategy is to ignore the idiots and try to find coworkers you don't despise. At my old job, I met one guy who delighted in constantly asking me if I knew the definitions of various obscure and graphic sexual acts...but I also met some girls AND guys I'm still close friends with. If you're in an small office with only uncool people, try to escape for lunch or use headphones to listen to music or watch Hulu. You don't have to have lunch with everybody (or anybody). You don't have to attend every ill-advised work karaoke outing or houseparty. You don't have to give everyone your cell number, friend them on Facebook or talk to them on AIM and Gchat. Sometimes keeping up a separate work life and private life can prevent people from feeling like they are close enough to you to make certain comments. Of course, douchebags you may want to tell them to shut the fuck up every now and then. But some people will persist in their harassment even if you ignore or stand up to them - and if the environment becomes something you can't deal with, maybe you really should file a formal complaint.

I've spent over an hour Googling for more about sexual harassment in Hollywood, and it's almost shocking how little I've been able to find, save for brief articles about allegations against celebs and the occasional agent. I did find one story about development execs: in the 1992 case Wayne Mogilefsky v. The Superior Court of Los Angeles, a CE at Silver Pictures accused the company's president, Michael Levy, of promising him a promotion and salary increase in exchange for sexual favors. The case was later dismissed.

In another behind-the-scenes case in 2008, an assistant on the movie Baby on Board accused her boss, a producer on the film, of sexual harassment. Her lawsuit alleged that he repeatedly groped her, slapped her buttocks, asked her to massage his back and shoulders, told her she "would look really hot" if she got breast implants, asked her to buy him condoms and asked her as she and other employees were at a strip club to obtain a stripper's phone number because he wanted to have sex with her. Unfortunately, I couldn't find out the result of the case.

A few more articles:

Casting and Caste-Ing: Reconciling Artistic Freedom and Antidiscrimination Norms - A UCLA research paper about the legality of race and sex classifications in casting announcements for actors, which are common in the film industry and have profound social consequences, yet have been entirely overlooked by legal scholars.

Letterman and Me - a Vanity Fair article by Nell Scovell, one of the few women ever to write for Late Night with David Letterman, about the hostile, sexually charged atmosphere at the show.

As depressing as this all is, don't be discouraged. There are plenty of respectable men and women in Hollywood who run offices completely free of sexual harassment. I hope your next job is at one of them.

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The Bitter Script Reader said...

Great post. I saw that question in the comments a while back and was curious if you were going to take on such a loaded subject. This post should be required reading for anyone starting out in Hollywood. The best defense against this kind of thing always starts with knowing your rights.

To the original questioner: I think Amanda's advice is solid and if you ARE thinking of taking action against the boss by speaking to HR, you might wish to test the waters with some other female co-workers. Often the guys who engage in this kind of behavior tend to do it to more than one woman. Sometimes it's easier to come forward in numbers than as an individual.

Colene Murphy said...

Wow. What great advice! Well said.

What said...

Just to chime in:

I had a low-level job at a TV network in the post-production department (read: riddled with male technicians, editors, etc). Although the admins and producers tended to be women, the engineers, tape ops, etc were all men and since I worked assisting them I was often around what I considered to be a very sexually charged environment. I don't understand the male sociology that tells them it's ok to speak/refer to women in such degrading ways -despite the fact that it is ILLEGAL but although it was never targeted at me directly, it was targeted at my co-workers and it was one of the reasons why I eventually left.

I do agree that speaking up and letting male co-workers that have no clout over you know that such behavior is inappropriate is a good way to go. I also want to agree with Amanda that not every man was like that - I did meet amazing, kind, creative, hardworking editors, directors, and engineers who were extremely professional and focused on the job rather than "dick gossip" (what I term it) and luckily for me, these decent guys were in the majority.

I don't believe that any job is worth being degraded over. You are a human being with intrinsic worth and having to withstand such abuse for a paycheck and a potential career advance is, to me, a violation of our human right to work in a hostile-free environment. I'd suggest you start making the moves to quit and, if so compelled, file a claim against your superior. That behavior cannot be condoned and he needs to get the message that he's not at a frat party and there are legal reprecussions to behaving like an irresponsible adult.

Finally, I wanted to add that based on the evidence we have from all of the women who have blazed trails in this industry before us, those that choose to debase themselves for their careers have no much more success than those who have validated their own worth and fought to be respected. The question is, which path will you take?

Paul A Newman said...

There was also a case a few years ago by, I believe , someone who worked on FRIENDS, claiming a sexually charged workplace. I don't remember if it went to trial, but I'm pretty sure she lost the case.

While there are clear cases that step over the line i.e. the casting couch), Hollywood isn't like working at Walmart. Discussing an actor or actresses sex appeal is part of the every day discussion. Talking about chemistry or whether a sex scene is hot is part of what gets discussed. This is an industry where two people dating becomes national news, so of course gossip of who is doing who is rampant. Also, on the creative side people tend to have a yes first thinking, i.e. you want the people to have as much freedom to say whatever they are thinking. Could you really make SEX AND THE CITY if you are worried about sexual comments becoming harrassment? Or even, if S&tC was made for network tv (where obviously it would have to be censored down to PG) would the series have been as good?

It's good to remember the line for harrassment varies from job to job. If you work in a urologists office than a man dropping his pants in front of you should be expected. If you work in Walmart, then the guy can be arrested. Simply because you aren't comfortable with what is being said or the jokes that are being made doesn't mean it amounts to harrassment.

If you really feel uncomfortable, you should talk to someone. No job is worth being miserable.

And the uncomfortable feeling isn't just for women. I'm pretty sure Taylor Lautner didn't like Ellen asking him to take his shirt off on national tv. Can you imagine if a male talk show host asked a 17 year old girl to strip to a bikini? Yikes. But when it happens to a guy, those same women who would be offended are the first to egg him on.

Dan Williams said...

Really enjoyed your post! You really covered it!

The issue of sexual harassment was big in the early 1990's. Companies were encouraged to establish a policy on it by having staff meetings. Procedures were put in place to handle it. For the most part what happens is, a person goes to Human Resources with a complaint, and HR arranges a private meeting between the person and the other person. That usually does it. No more incidents occur in 99% of the cases. It's all off the record at this point. If it occurs again, then letters are sent threatening job loss and/or legal action. It's an effective system that works.

In the absence of such a company system, I think it is a mistake for, say, a woman to believe she is risking her job if she says something to the other person. That's being too timid. The other person probably thinks of it as flirting and means no real harm. All it takes is for the woman to say something like, "Well, I'm seeing somebody and I'd like to work things out with them." That usually ends it. If the woman can't get herself to say just this much, then her silence might be encouraging to the other person. There's no need to be rude or to cause hurt feelings, just a need to communicate. If it continues, then the woman should tell the other person, "Stop it." If it still continues then the woman needs to contact the other person's supervisor. That should end it.

And if the other person touches the woman with pats on the back, etc, just say, "No touching, I'm here to focus on the job." Again, it communicates and there's little if any risk of losing the job.

Anyway, it's good to practice speaking up when you're back home if it seems kinda scary to actually do it. But if you learn to do it, you'll respect yourself a lot more and so will other people. They'll be proud of you for speaking up.

Baby Writer Z said...

Excellent post on a tough subject. It’s SO hard to know when a line has been crossed in the entertainment industry, and when it has been crossed, it’s tempting to do/say nothing since connections and reputations can play such a big role in a person’s success (no one wants to be known as “the one who caused all the trouble”). But, I think that’s the wrong way to look at it.

At one of my first jobs out of college, my boss warned me about a “higher-up” who liked “young women…really young.” Yikes! I think the scariest part of hearing that was realizing that when it came to potential sexual harassment, the message wasn’t “that shouldn’t happen” but instead, “don’t rock the boat.” Well, I can say, over the years, anyone I know who spoke up, sought help, and “rocked the boat” when they had a problem at work was A LOT happier (and their industry careers didn’t suffer) while those who just took it quietly didn’t get anything in return for their trouble except a miserable experience. Or, think of it this way…do you really want a promotion from the person who is making you feel so uncomfortable? Would you really want to work for that person AGAIN? Good jobs are hard to come by, but a job where you’re constantly uncomfortable is not a good job. Good luck to the woman who asked the question…there IS something better out there!

Dan Williams said...

I agree with Baby Writer Z that if the advances are really obnoxious, it's better to get another job.

However, I think if it's handled properly, there's no real threat to your job.

Suppose a guy comes up to you and starts talking about how sexy you are and what you do to him, etc. Just say, "My friend, you're a Hollywood stud, but I'm with somebody and I really want to work it out with him. I don't want to mess it up. I don't want to be one of those Hollywood females that cheets and sleeps around, okay? You're a great guy, don't waste your time on me, I'm spoken for, okay? We're friends and I value the friendship too much to mess it up. I'm here to help your career, that's where my focus is, okay?"

If you define the situation to the other person, I think you'll get good results and not be in any danger of losing your job. It's a game, it's not super-serious, so just keep a smile on your face, keep talking how much you guys are friends and how you are spoken for, etc, and see how it goes. This way, you turn your boss or whoever into a real friend, which can only help your career.

Anonymous said...

Hi Amanda.
First of all, kudos to you for writing about this. As you mentioned, there is very little being written or done about sexual harassment in Hollywood.
As a journalist and former production office receptionist/office manager/lackey/etc., I'm trying to change that. I wonder if you or any of your friends would be willing to let me interview you about this subject.

Monique said...

Wow, this is so great for you to put forth. So many people are afraid of posting about this topic including me. I was recently terminated from a company, who helps actors. I had written a script on sexual harassment, and I was told by a staff member that it was "disrespectful" to the people, who worked at the company, even though the script had nothing to do with them personally. It was a satire piece about what happens in Hollywood, and women in general. It was eyeopening and sad that I was
"scolded" for writing the truth, and I plan to stand up to it, because as artists, it is a sacred duty to entertain and educate by sharing truth. Thank you for your truth, and I hope more people hop on the bandwagon in order to save a lot of tears and talent.