The verdict in the Harvey Weinstein trial amounts to a significant victory for the #MeToo movement. It sends a powerful message to sexual harassers, workplace bullies and powerful abusers of all stripes that they are not beyond the reach of the law.
Some will say the Hollywood producer’s conviction on two of the five charges against him is exceptional, that a less notorious defendant would have been acquitted, or that this case should draw a line under the #MeToo era.
On the contrary. The trial illuminated and advanced complex areas of the law relating to, as the Manhattan district attorney put it, “the complicated dynamics of power and consent after an assault”. The bravery of witnesses and victims during the trial has illuminated the complex psychology of sexual assault, revealing why those who suffer attacks and abuse cannot “just walk away”, why some even stick with abusive relationships, and why they often prefer to stay silent.
That Weinstein was acquitted on the most serious charges of predatory sexual assault and first-degree rape also indicates that the jury was capable of exercising differentiated judgments despite the unavoidable media momentum behind the case against the former mogul.
The outcome of the Weinstein trial should give hope to victims of harassment by lower-profile abusers. It should also embolden business leaders to change and improve the culture of the organisations they oversee.
The wave of historic complaints unleashed by the Weinstein story two years ago demonstrated that many victims found the policies and procedures set up in the 1980s and 1990s in an attempt to curb harassment fundamentally inadequate. They preferred to stay silent, for fear of being stigmatised or of triggering a counter-reaction from the very organisations that had a duty to listen to them.
Alternatively, they were actively encouraged not to speak out, through the use of non-disclosure agreements weighted firmly in favour of the interests of the employer and alleged abusers. The Weinstein case should reinforce the principle that NDAs must not override legal protection for victims or prevent them from speaking to law enforcers.
The relationship between budding actor and powerful impresario is not unique. Many business relationships are built outside traditional rules-governed corporate hierarchies. Gig economy deals between powerful paymasters and freelancers hungry for repeat business are less starry but fraught with similar risks as decisions about who to cast in the next blockbuster. In big companies, as scandals at professional services firms have revealed, it is not only senior executives who may harass juniors; important outside clients may also abuse their financial clout to bully staff members.
The trial and surrounding publicity have also made clear that bystanders must be encouraged to call out bad behaviour. Weinstein’s staff were often shamefully silent or actively complicit in his offences. Regulations must be reinforced to protect whistleblowers.
Not every uncivilised workplace will become a crucible for the gross acts of a Harvey Weinstein, but, if unmanaged, misdemeanours can escalate until a whole culture is rotten. Enforcement alone will not prevent sexual abuse. An office regime of suspicion and fear is not an answer. Ultimate responsibility to avoid that outcome lies with powerful leaders. They should not just refrain from bad behaviour themselves but set out to foster a healthier culture in the organisations they manage and influence.
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