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Why the Weinstein scandal highlights systemic issues in management, not just the film industry.

By Professor Mark Learmonth - October 2020

In October 2018, the New York Times published a list of 201 powerful men, and three women, who lost jobs, awards, contracts or reputations in the United States because of the #MeToo movement. Many of the perpetrators had been senior business people, and most faced multiple accusations. At the time of writing, this figure has risen to over 400. It seems that women are now starting to out their bosses as sexual abusers, and are being believed, with a frequency that was almost unimaginable even a few years ago.

Until recently, most women who were subjected to their bosses’ sexual misconduct kept quiet about it. Understandably so, because those who publicly accused their managers often faced blame or disbelief, even from friends and family; and if anyone left their job as a result of an accusation it was much more likely to be the accuser than the perpetrator. Accusers who did leave often left with legally binding non-disclosure agreements designed to intimidate them and keep their mouths firmly shut. Recent revelations suggest that, while there is a long way to go, we could be at the beginning of a revolution in attitudes towards sexual misconduct at work.

The current debate centres on Harvey Weinstein, who was sentenced to 23 years in jail for a series of sexual assaults (including rape) committed at work. Being a multi-award-winning film producer, Weinstein is typically portrayed as a Hollywood mogul. However, with his brother Bob, he co-owned and ran two major companies (Miramax and then the Weinstein Company).

Abuse of power

In many ways, therefore, Weinstein’s jobs were little different from any senior executive. While some of the survivors/victims were world-famous film stars (had they not been, the media storm would have been much less intense), many others were ordinary company employees. It was a relatively junior member of staff at Miramax, Laura Madden, who was one of the first to agree to go on record with allegations against him. So, the ramifications of the case go well beyond the film industry, with major implications for all involved in organisations.

One of the wider issues raised is the nature of the brute corporate power that can be wielded over wider society. The Weinstein case provides a particularly compelling example of how all-encompassing – and how hard and uncompromisingly ruthless – the power of big corporations can be; particularly when they are fighting to maintain their survival. It seems that effective cover-ups are still possible, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of major criminal misconduct.

The Weinstein case shows some of the mechanisms available to powerful executives – the very long strings they can pull and the influential people whose favours they can call in – to protect themselves from media scrutiny. In fact, some of the investigative journalists at the forefront of exposing him clearly faced considerable professional risks in doing so. And not just professional risks either. For example, Ronan Farrow, one of the reporters to first break the news about Weinstein, tells of the alliances that seemed to form between the people he was reporting on and his bosses at NBC; bosses who, at least ostensibly, were supposed to be supporting him.

It is clear too that a large corporate conspiracy was involved in covering everything up. Many people in Weinstein’s company knew there were serious issues well before they broke in the media, but failed to do anything about it. Sometimes this was because they were deliberately complicit. But often it seems that other factors were at play. Perhaps some were only really interested in the financial performance of the company and were blinkered by that focus – or perhaps others simply assumed that sexual exploitation of junior staff by top executives was something that was, well, so commonplace everywhere that it must be OK.

Influence of sexuality

The Weinstein case raises questions about what we really know – and (perhaps more importantly) what we may well still not know – about many of the darker aspects of corporate life. And I hope it will provide a new impetus to management academics to study more rigorously and more deeply the influence of sexuality in organisational life. It seems dangerous to assume that sexual violence at work will disappear if the current perpetrators are removed.

The issues at stake are likely to have systemic roots within wider culture, roots that could well go to the very heart of the management role as conventionally understood and practised. After all, there is likely to be a strong link between men’s violence against women and men’s (often) socially sanctioned desire to maintain power over them. We still live in a world in which most corporations are overwhelmingly dominated by men in senior positions. While it is clearly important to stop individual sexual predators, it will probably be an endless battle – unless we start to tackle the wider structural issues of gender disparity more effectively.

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