By Jean Boler |
Remember that old adage that the cover-up is sometimes worse than the crime? A corollary exists for women grappling with their response to sexual discrimination, harassment and violence. The psychological toll of silence is sometimes as debilitating as the event itself. Women often feel self-doubt and shame for not speaking out—not only did he do that to me, but I am so powerless that I don’t dare tell anyone.
The recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s decades of predatory behavior hidden in plain sight, and the social media #MeToo campaign in response, reinforces what every woman knows: none of us escapes the lessons of male dominance. It starts when we are children and continues all our lives. Sometimes the lesson is delivered with harsh violence, and sometimes it lurks in the bland numbers on our paycheck. To complain about it, we learn, is to step away from the shield of our assigned roles and accept the branding of a non-conformist: hussy, bitch, tease, harpy, pushy, witch, neurotic—and many other names both more benign and more cruel.
We make the calculation: what we sacrifice in staying silent versus what we lose if we speak out. We know there are laws that make us equal, but we also know the price of asserting our rights. Once you attack the rules of the game, you might not ever be able to play again. A 2015 survey found that 71% of women who experienced sexual harassment did not reported it. Instead they gritted their teeth and endured until they could transfer to another department or get another job.
Silence Perpetuates Injustice
Suppressing the urge to speak against injustice has an insidious price. Women are constantly reminded of the handicap of gender in the news, at work, even in our homes. Our own stories of inequality don’t just happen once and then get buried by happier news. Every fresh story revives that old feeling of powerlessness, whether it happens to us, or to someone else. And beneath powerlessness roils fear.
What do we have to combat this tenacious power imbalance? We have each other. We make up over half the population of this country after all. Years ago, when I represented 17 women miners suing a mining company for rampant sexual harassment, three women stepped forward first. The other women edged warily away, calling the plaintiffs overly sensitive and worrying they would lose their jobs. Eventually, though, one by one, the others came forward with their own stories, until they all stood together and forced the company to change.
When I interview potential clients, I ask them to identify other women who experienced similar treatment. Nine times out of ten, when I call these other women, I do not have to cajole or beg for their stories. They want to tell me! They want to be heard! Pressure is building behind the wall of silence. The dam broke for Hollywood women. The only way toward change is for us to find our voices and speak. The price of silence is victimhood, and it is far too high.
Jean Boler is an attorney at Schaefer Halleen specializing in discrimination and harassment. She was one of the lead counsel Jenson v. Eveleth Mines, the first sexual harassment class action in the country, which later became the subject of the book Class Action and the movie North Country.