by Roxanne Jones
Behind every sexual harasser, be he Matt Lauer or the man next door, likely stands a woman willing to excuse, cover up or feel “heartbroken” for the abuser once his lewd behavior is exposed. I’ve seen this time and time again and I know I’m not the only one.
You know these women. Maybe you are even one of them.
In some cases, these women are the personal assistants, executives and co-workers who have benefited from the harasser’s success. They’ve gotten promotions, recognition and raises.
They may commiserate with other women in the ladies’ room about the awful boys’ club culture. But if you ever accuse a co-worker of sexual harassment or abuse, the last thing they will do is support you. If they have the power, these women may even fire you for causing a stir.
This week, NBC star Matt Lauer became the most recent man to fall amid sexual harassment allegations, which ranged from castigating a woman for not having sex with him after he dropped his pants in the office to sending women sex toys. On Thursday, Lauer apologized: “… there is enough truth in these stories to make me feel embarrassed and ashamed,” he wrote. “I regret that my shame is now shared by the people I cherish dearly,” his statement said.
When his “Today” show co-host Savannah Guthrie broke the news of Lauer’s firing on air, she was clearly devastated.
“… I’m heartbroken for Matt. He is my dear, dear friend and my partner,” Guthrie said on the show. “He is beloved by many, many people here.” Guthrie added she also was heartbroken for the woman who came forward to tell her story and for those who might still come forward. Her fill-in co-host Hoda Kotb joined the Lauer lovefest.
Why would Guthrie and Kotb immediately rush in to praise Lauer before they even had details of the story? This type of selfish, blind loyalty is what enables these predators to reign with terror over working women in the first place. Must we always show this automatic sympathy for men we know who’ve shown such cruelty to women?
Rumors of their dear friend’s womanizing ways were no secret in the media industry, according to Variety. Ann Curry was infamously ousted from the show as Lauer’s co-host in 2012, in part allegedly because of her frosty relationship with Lauer, as noted by CNN’s Brian Stelter and others. Curry always cited the boys’ club environment at the Today’s show, as Stelter noted.
The accusations against Lauer are increasing, and they are disturbing. In addition to the stories detailed in Variety, a different woman, who didn’t want to be named, told the New York Times on Wednesday that Lauer had called her to his office back in 2001 to discuss a story. He locked the door, she said, bent her over a chair, pulled down her pants and had sex with her. She said she passed out and was taken to a nurse. She told The Times that she didn’t report the assault at the time because she felt she didn’t do enough to stop Lauer and was afraid she’d lose her job. She quit a year later.
Matt Lauer, Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Congressman John Conyers, Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore, even our “grab ’em by the p***y” President Trump — all have had women eager to defend their honor, no matter how obscene the accusations of sexual harassment and abuse. Lauer, Rose, and Weinstein have apologized for at least some of the alleged behavior, with Weinstein denying anything non-consensual took place. One of Conyers’ accusers is still asking for an apology. Moore has denied the allegations, as has President Trump — who it was reported this week suggested the infamous Access Hollywood tape may have been a fake or altered, though he had apologized in the aftermath of its release to the press last fall.
Yvette Vega, an executive producer with Charlie Rose since 1991, knew for decades about her boss’ crude behavior — which, according to allegations, include his walking around naked in front of young women who worked with him, and late night sexual fantasy calls. Rose has been accused of sexual harassment by eight women. Still, Vega did nothing for women who asked her for help.
“I explained (to Vega) how he inappropriately spoke to me during those times,” Kyle Godfrey-Ryan, a 21-year-old Rose assistant in the mid-2000s told The Washington Post. “She would just shrug and just say, ‘That’s just Charlie being Charlie.'” Vega doesn’t deny she covered for the predator. “I should have stood up for them. I failed,” she said in a statement. “It is crushing. I deeply regret not helping them.”
Yes, Yvette. You did fail.
Another recent fail for women involves a not-as-famous but still powerful man, Mike Oreskes, who was recently forced to resign from his post as NPR’s senior vice president of news after two women accused him of unwanted sexual contact. Oreskes admitted wrongdoing and apologized in an internal memo obtained by CNN. The alleged assaults happened when Oreskes was a Washington bureau chief for The New York Times. He also worked at the Associated Press. Decades later, women at NPR also complained about his alleged behavior.
Said Jill Abramson, who was Oreskes’ deputy at The Times and eventually became the first female executive editor at paper: “Maybe confronting him would have somehow stopped him from doing it to another woman. … I don’t really feel it was in a gray area in retrospect. I should have stopped him,” she told the Washington Post. Abramson, who left the paper in 2014, is now a lecturer at Harvard.
It’s hard to deny the reward for silence, for not supporting women who report harassment. Sadly, Vega and Abramson are examples of this. But silence like theirs ensures continued inequality of women in the workplace and puts women in danger.
It ruins the careers of countless talented, ambitious women. And that should be unacceptable. It’s not enough to want full equality, or equal pay, or respect in the workplace if you are not willing to stand up and fight for it when it counts.
According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, “anywhere from 25% to 85% of women report having experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.” That’s a huge range, but even looking at 25% means 1 in 4 working women experience harassment. And the EEOC study also said that 75% of sexual harassment cases are never even reported.
I understand that these situations are complicated. Working relationships do sometimes grow into deep friendships, if you’re lucky. And it’s disheartening to find out that a male colleague you admire and respect, or even call a friend, may also be a sexist pig, or worse.
Firing the harasser is not always warranted — although if reports are true, Lauer had to go. There have been times when I’ve reported sexual harassment for myself, or other women and men, but I didn’t demand the harasser be terminated. I didn’t hire a lawyer and try to sue for big bucks. However, I did call for accountability — a demotion, a record of the harassment in his personnel file, a canceled bonus, mandatory counseling — some sign that the company didn’t condone this behavior. This was not always achievable. Sometimes it was impossible and the abusers were protected.
That’s why it’s crucial that we continue to speak up and out these sexual harassers. But we must also confront the women in the room who continue to fail us all.
Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has worked as a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete.” She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia’s Praise 107.9FM.