Hollywood and Academia: Is the problem the same?

By Dr Emma Chapman

The last week has seen an ever-increasing snowball of allegations against the top Hollywood figure Harvey Weinstein. It has been easy to see the parallels with our own work in addressing staff sexual misconduct in higher education when reading the evolving coverage and we have spoken to BBC Radio 4 (The World Tonight) and been interviewed for television on the BBC World Service and BBC News on that topic this week. So why is the Weinstein case so similar to what we see in academia?

Academia, like Hollywood, is a small community where women are discriminated against at every stage of the hiring process. Women in academia need the equivalent of 3 extra top-tier publications to be successful for a fellowship (Wenneras & Wold) and will only be hired for a permanent position half as often as an identical male equivalent (R. E. Steinpreis et al.). The issue actresses have in securing fulfilling roles and indeed Hollywood’s generally dire depiction of women needs no introduction. Whenever you have discriminatory systems like this you end up with a large gender power imbalance, with men disproportionately wielding the power and having direct responsibility for the career progression of junior women who are often on precarious, temporary, contracts. It isn’t surprising then that sexual harassers can exploit this system especially when the institution involved does little to protect against this kind of behaviour, effectively condoning it.

“This is far-reaching, it is endemic, and we have to believe that the toppling of this mogul will lead to the toppling of others…. This is a bigger issue than taking down one person.” – Kelly Marcel

We have seen Weinstein splashed across front pages and described as a “beast”, a “monster”, in other words an anomaly when he is simply a familiar product of a systemic problem. We have seen the misplaced, weak support of the accused (He’s never done anything to me),  the blaming of women for not coming forward earlier (Why Women Didn’t Speak Up), and the protestations that this is surely too awful to have actually happened. All of these arguments will be familiar from those working on sexual misconduct cases. The perpetrators are often well practised at targeting junior colleagues who have reasons to keep it quiet, allowing the harasser to get away with the same actions for years if not decades. This has the effect of making the scale of what has happened quite incredible when it does come to light and perpetrators are quick to use that in order to cast doubt on their accusers.

So why don’t people come forward sooner? Well, firstly, often they do. It doesn’t take much digging in these cases to find the early warnings of frustrated people, and often those coming forward first will be asked to brush it under the carpet. “You know who this man is, do you really want to take this forward?” “Perhaps it’s best for everyone if we deal with this informally – I’ll have a word”. If a survivor does decide to press ahead they put themselves at huge risk of career retaliation due to the small community nature of both Hollywood and academia. Once you have chosen your research area then you will often be working with the same 50-100 people for the rest of your career and the perpetrator is often in a far more senior position from the get go. It doesn’t take much to destroy someone’s career in industries where junior members of the community are so expendable. After all there is no shortage of actresses desperate for a role and no end to the number of postdocs grasping for that all-important permanent position.

“The 65-year-old married father-of-five is understood to have reached a financial settlement with his accuser in return for her signing a nondisclosure agreement.” – The Telegraph

One place where it might seem there have been stark differences between this kind of case in Hollywood, compared to academia, has been the pace of events. Weinstein was fired within days of the first headline and only last night the Oscars Academy voted to eject him from their community. But over the week it has become obvious that this is simply the same PR-led action we see when sexual misconduct cases in academia are publicised. The investigations, settlements and confidentiality of Hollywood are all too familiar within university settings too.  Academic investigation and disciplinary procedures last anything from months to years and are carried out under the highest bounds of confidentiality. Often they are ended informally, or prematurely with a settlement, and if they do conclude with disciplinary action against the staff member, the charges and outcome are not shared with the complainants let alone the wider field in which the perpetrator works. This confidentiality has resulted in a chronic lack of faith in the current academic system to deal with perpetrators effectively and protect those coming forward. So many processes end with no measurable impact on the perpetrator while the complainants are shattered from the uncertainty, the stress and the sheer feeling of institutional betrayal. This all serves to deter people from coming forward and early reports suggest confidential settlements played a significant role in enabling Weinstein’s behaviour (power corrupts in legal settlements).

So what do we do about it? As a group we are engaging across the academic system: working to gather data with the National Union of Students, working with the UK’s premier law firm in academic misconduct (McAllister Olivarius) to draft policy ensuring universities are held accountable, and working with Universities UK and the University and College Union (UCU) to ensure that any policy change is disseminated widely and is enforced. We are looking to other countries and professions with an open mind, learning both from what has worked and what hasn’t. However, to create sustainable change we need universities to step forward and implement the wide changes needed in both culture and policy. Culture change is crucial, and the significant work by Changing University Cultures (CHUCL) should be the benchmark for the sector. This kind of change often starts from the bottom up through different forms of activism from students and supportive staff, and indeed a single passionate person higher up can create a temporary fix. But when the policies themselves do not recognise the severe nature of sexual misconduct and enforce professional boundaries for all staff members, and there is no leadership from senior management, little will change.

“The era of wilful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory behaviour and workplace harassment in our industry is over” – Oscars Academy

The action of the Oscars Academy highlights one course of action that is available within academia, which is the exclusion of academic staff from non-university settings. In science for example, research is often carried out in large collaborations and membership of learned societies is common. In both cases membership is often discretionary and can be revoked by the society or collaboration board. It can send a powerful message that harassment will not be tolerated.

Let’s come back to the question which started this post. Hollywood and academia are both small professional communities with a history of discriminating against women and treating their junior community members as expendable. The power imbalance that this creates is easily exploitable as those in power are protected by outdated and ineffective policies as well as beliefs that do not recognise the support needed by those reporting sexual misconduct, nor enforce professional codes of conduct. The disproportionate levels of confidentiality used in such cases have gagged entire communities and led to a breakdown in trust from survivors as well as a system where survivors are put off from coming forward. The power imbalance in these kinds of communities can never be entirely eradicated but, at The 1752 Group, we are determined to remove the possibility of that power being exploited.