This past week, multiple famous women, including Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie, Rosanna Arquette, and Ashley Judd have come forward on the record to The New York Times and The New Yorker to claim that Hollywood Oscar-winning producer Harvey Weinstein used his power in the industry to sexually harass, and in some cases, sexually assault them. The disturbing accounts from women are drawn from the course of nearly three decades, and include being forced to meet alone in hotel rooms, cope with aggressive requests for nude massages, and fend off unwanted sexual advances from the Hollywood mogul, who was their employer and sometimes mentor.
Pressure to comply
Weinstein’s behavior was regarded as an open secret in Hollywood. That it took decades for this story to become public shows how Weinstein leveraged the careers, salaries, and reputations of employees, assistants, executives, and young, vulnerable actresses to his advantage, according to his accusers.
Women in the reports said they would confide in co-workers about Weinstein’s misconduct, but most feared accusing Weinstein publicly because of his influence over their careers. For well-established actresses like Paltrow, keeping a relationship with Harvey was critical for maintaining her career. Paltrow, who ended up winning an Oscar for a film produced by Weinstein, said she was “expected to keep the secret” of her harassment and publicly praised him. To deny Weinstein was to risk never working in Hollywood. When actress Mira Sorvino rejected Weinstein’s sexual advances, she told The New Yorker that her career suffered: she “felt iced out and that my rejection of Harvey had something to do with it.”
— The New Yorker (@NewYorker) October 10, 2017
Several of the actresses said that after their bad experiences, they would warn people in their network to avoid Weinstein as a way to help others without reprisal. “I had a bad experience with Harvey Weinstein in my youth, and as a result, chose never to work with him again and warn others when they did,” Jolie told the Times. Actress Jessica Chastain was one of the recipients of this kind of backchannel whisper network. “I was warned from the beginning,” she said.
I was warned from the beginning. The stories were everywhere. To deny that is to create an enviornment for it to happen again.
— Jessica Chastain (@jes_chastain) October 9, 2017
Benefits of using backchannels to spread the word
Whisper networks of shared screenshots, Google documents, private Slack channels, group chats, private direct messages, and after-hours debriefings at the bar have long been a way for women to warn each other against workplace harassers. They can be an effective warning for people in your network to know about bad actors without violating non-disparagement contracts, settlements, or risking your job. When victims go public with their story, the psychological damage and professional blacklisting they will need to endure too often ends careers, as a Fortune investigation into life for women who made sexual harassment claims found.
As Rena Weeks, an employee who filed a 1992 sexual harassment lawsuit against her employer put it: “When you go into filing a lawsuit, you have to accept you’ll be labeled as a nut, a slut, a money grubber, or a poor performer,” she told Fortune. After Weeks’s public battle with her ex-law firm, she never worked in law again.
The limits of avoiding public discussion
When the consequences of going public are this damaging, it makes a sad sort of sense why so many victims keep their warnings to their inner circles. But backchannel warnings cannot be the only solution employees rely on because they leave people behind. By its definition, a secret whisper network means that not everyone can know. Younger employees and employees just staring out in their careers who lack the protections of these established networks — the type of people Weinstein allegedly preyed on — are particularly vulnerable to missing out on these warnings.
Even well-established actresses like Meryl Streep can miss out on these messages. Streep issued a statement that said “not everybody knew” about Weinstein’s misconduct. After people criticized her response — how could she not know? — Hollywood insiders like “Halt and Catch Fire” TV writer Angelina Burnett defended Streep by pointing out the holes in whisper networks.
“If you think Harvey Weinstein was about to pull some s—t with MERYL F—G STREEP…And if you think a bunch of desperate for careers young actresses who revere Streep were gonna run their mouths to her about this a—hole…YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND THIS BUSINESS. YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND WOMEN. YOU DO NOT UNDERSTAND POWER,” Burnett wrote in a series of tweets, noting that people like Weinstein go after “less powerful women.”
Whisper networks are ultimately an imperfect solution until more established networks can be built to stop employees from becoming victims of harassment. For alleged harassers like Weinstein to be stopped for good, whispered information needs to be said out loud in public for all to hear.
Employees facing their own kind of Weinsteins can look to how his victims united together as a blueprint for how they could combine the power of information with consequence. After Weinstein’s victims came forward with their complaints in public stories, The Weinstein Company’s board immediately fired Weinstein from his company.