Listening to women’s stories of sexual harassment and assault is critical to dismantle the cultures that enable these behaviors, speakers at the fifth annual OWN IT Summit said during the panel Navigating the #MeToo Movement.
The panel discussion featured Mattie Larson, the U.S. national team gymnast who testified against Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics national team doctor who was charged for child molestation, as well as The Washington Post investigative reporter Amy Brittain and Tammy Cho, co-founder and CEO of BetterBrave, an organization that advocates for survivors of sexual harassment.
The event was one of three mainstage panel discussions at the OWN IT Summit, an annual event inaugurated in 2014 to discuss the issues women face in their professional and social lives.
Kendall Ciesemier (COL ’15), one of the co-founders of OWN IT, facilitated the discussion, prompting the panelists to share and reflect on their experiences in the wake of the #MeToo movement, a hashtag campaign that began in 2017 to share the prevalence of sexual assault and harassment in the work place.
The #MeToo movement reached prominence last fall by the rapid fall of several prominent male media figures, including film producer Harvey Weinstein, NBC news host Matt Lauer, and stand-up comedian Louis C.K. — as well as former CBS talk show host Charlie Rose, whose allegations of sexual assault were publicly revealed in a Washington Post story reported by Brittain and her colleague Irin Carmon.
Panelists discussed what the allegations against powerful men will mean in the months, and eventually years, after the initial wave of the movement.
After so many high-profile men were the subject of #MeToo allegations, some question whether sexual misconduct is an issue of a few bad apples or a broader cultural failure, according to Ciesemier.
“We’re not really talking about the cultures that allow them to exist,” Ciesemier said.
This culture, panelists said, is enabled by those who do not question the behavior of abusers and some who help the culture continue. Larson said her experience with Nassar, and those of his other victims, was made possible by adults who failed to question his behavior.
“You’re dealing with such young women,” Larson said about the gymnasts on her team. “When you have huge gaps between power it just makes it so easy for predators to take advantage.”
Panelists said the problems of sexual harassment and assault are compounded when victims face retaliation for speaking out. While founding BetterBrave, an organization that works to empower people by educating them about their workplace rights regarding sexual harassment, Cho interviewed hundreds of people to learn about their experiences with workplace harassment. She said the vast majority of those she interviewed experienced some form of reprisal after disclosing their experiences.
Retaliation or enabling behavior are a common theme through cases of assaul Brittain said.
“In a lot of cases these women did say something, they did speak up to their supervisors and they were told that that’s just Charlie being Charlie,” Brittain said. “Once again, the behavior was normalized.”
While #MeToo grabbed national attention for the powerful men who were accused, the movement could have consequences for a range of industries, Brittain said. She emphasized the work of journalists at The New York Times who investigated the alleged sexual harassment of blue-collar workers in Michigan and ProPublica’s investigation into allegations against the Red Cross.
“These are the women who live next door to us, the women you see in the grocery store and their stories, I believe, fundamentally are just as important as anyone else’s,” Brittain said.
As a journalist, advocate and survivor, Brittain, Cho and Larson respectively have varied backgrounds on hearing and telling these stories. Through their experiences, they emphasized the importance of listening, if someone chooses to reach out.
Larson urged people to first listen if someone reaches out to them with a story of sexual harassment or assault.
“It’s not your place to decide what umbrella their story falls under,” Larson said. “It’s not in your hands to judge them on what you think is right or wrong or what you think is assault or just an uncomfortable situation.”
She also said simply sharing their stories can be empowering for survivors, referencing the opportunity she took to testify at Nassar’s sentencing hearing.
“I couldn’t give myself another opportunity not to use my voice,” Larson said. “I now feel so much stronger.”