How to Kill the Culture of Sexual Harassment? Start by Putting More Women in Charge

“It really is about changing the culture so this kind of behavior is not tolerated on any level,” Women in Film executive director Kirsten Schaffer tells TheWrap

As Hollywood grapples with the ugliness of Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual misconduct allegations, top female activists are thinking about how the industry can expose and eradicate a culture that enabled the movie mogul.

Advocates for women in show business told TheWrap that future incidents of harrassment can be avoided if the industry hires more women, creates a safe space for women to speak out about their claims and increases the penalties for this kind of behavior.

“We definitely believe the time for change is now,” Kirsten Schaffer, executive director of Women in Film in Los Angeles, told TheWrap. “It really is about changing the culture so this kind of behavior is not tolerated on any level. One of the most alarming things is the number of people who had awareness of it but felt disempowered to do something. That’s what has to change.”

Elisa Lee Muñoz, executive director of the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF), isn’t optimistic about singular cases leading to widespread change, however.

“I see it as a problem of the power structure and the power disparity between men and women where you have an industry led almost entirely by men, and it’s going to be difficult for that culture to have a gendered approach to the way it operates,” she told TheWrap.

At the top of the Hollywood studio system, there are only two women in power positions out of the six majors. Donna Langley runs Universal Pictures along with Jeff Shell and Ron Meyer, and Fox Film Group Chairman and CEO Stacey Snider spearheads a predominantly female team that includes vice chairman Emma Watts, Fox Searchlight president Nancy Utley and Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler.

It’s still a male-dominated industry, and the board at The Weinstein Company, for example, was all-male. 

“One of the main goals of the work we do [at WIF] is to increase the parity — which should be 50 percent — at all levels, and we do that by lessening discrimination and increasing inclusivity,” said Schaffer. “The more we as an industry are acknowledging the both conscious and unconscious bias, the more we are working to reduce it and the less likely sexual harassment is to occur.”

Muñoz agrees: “One of the best ways to address these problems is to get more women in the highest levels of industries so there is a real culture change so they themselves are in a position of power and are not in the position to have men elevate them.”

She added: “It’s embarrassing when you look through websites and you see all these male boards. People should be embarrassed to have that kind of representation … These companies need to get with the times and have more representation on their boards.”

Melissa Silverstein, the founder of Women and Hollywood, added that it’s on men to “interrupt this behavior.” She said “layers and layers of toxic masculinity” in Hollywood have “created this normalization of sexism.”

“This behavior is not coming from women,” Silverstein told TheWrap. “This stuff is on men and this toxic masculinity is on men. If they want the world to be different for their daughters, they are going to have to figure out how to change the culture … I believe that fighting the good fight is what you should be doing. We have had so many things change in our world in our lifetime, so we must believe this is possible because Hollywood has such an effect around the world. We’re so caught up in this toxicity.”

“It can’t fall on women to put themselves on the line,” agreed Muñoz. “They are not the ones that are doing the wrong. There has to be a culture of, if you are not speaking, you are equally culpable.”

When several women stepped up to accuse ScreenJunkies creator Andy Signore of sexual assault earlier this month, one woman said she informed the human resources department of Defy Media, ScreenJunkies’ parent company, two months before she went public. “All they’ve done is protect him,” she said. (The company has fired Signore.)

Muñoz, Schaffer and Silverstein say that companies need to increase penalties against men who sexually harass or commit sexual assault. She said victims also need a safe space to report men who target them.

“There are some things that could lead to change, which includes creating spaces in the workplace where there is a real mechanism for reporting these instances and where people feel safe to do so,” Muñoz said. “The problem that women face is the question of backlash and being labeled ‘difficult,’ or not being believed, or shut out from the industry.”

“Studios and networks have sexual harassment trainings and hotlines, but they need to increase the penalties and I think we also have to increase penalties to those who are complicit and facilitating this kind of behavior,” added Schaffer.

“People need recourse,” Silverstein said. “If HR is not going to take sexual harassment claims seriously, you have to have other recourse … Women don’t say this for their own good — it’s incredibly hard to say this stuff out loud. If people are really feeling that things can change, they need to change their policies and hire people that are reliable … There must be recourse for this behavior. It cannot be the norm — we must change the norm.”

Silverstein and Schaffer believe that Donald Trump and his explicit comments from a year ago have catapulted sexual misconduct accusations to the forefront, and have encouraged more women to speak up about their abuse experiences with powerful men.

“Donald Trump has really led women to take their power in a way that I’m sure would not have happened in Hillary Clinton would’ve been elected, because our rights wouldn’t have been assaulted on a daily basis,” said Silverstein.

“I think it’s a little bit related to Donald Trump, but I also think it’s about the level of reporting that occurred in the New York Times and the New Yorker,” said Schaffer.

Muñoz wishes the Trump “Access Hollywood” tape had had much more of an impact. 

“I don’t think people are speaking out in retaliation against the Trump world,” she said. “He said all of those things and he still got elected. People don’t care.”

Will the casting couch culture ever disappear in Hollywood?

“I feel like the casting couch culture is a word for all the toxicity in Hollywood,” said Silverstein. “We can be specific about sexual favors, but it’s also about the sexualization of women when they go for auditions… The onus is not on the women, it’s on the people who run these companies.”

“We all have to make an agreement, men and women — we’re not tolerating this kind of behavior,” added Schaffer.