The text came from a close friend.
“It was something along the lines of ‘A letter is going out saying that women at the capitol are tired of being harassed,’ ” says Elise Gyore, a senior staffer in the California state legislature. “ ‘I want to know if you want to sign on.’ ”
She stared at her phone. It had been eight years since Gyore filed an internal sexual-misconduct complaint against former California assemblyman Raul Bocanegra. She had a new job as a senate chief of staff in the state capitol and had moved on with her life.
“I had that kind of roaring in your ears where it brings you back to that moment,” Gyore says of reading the text. “My immediate reaction was, Jesus Christ, again? We can’t keep our hands off each other?”
It was October 2017, just a week after the Harvey Weinstein scandal began toppling the Hollywood hierarchy, and Gyore suddenly found herself in the eye of a brand-new storm. The letter in question was a brief document organized by lobbyist Adama Iwu. Later dubbed “We Said Enough,” it called out pervasive sexual misconduct within California’s allegedly progressive state government.
Gyore spent the weekend mulling it over. The decision to go public wasn’t an easy one; working in the statehouse is all about good relationships and whom you know. Rocking the boat means risking your reputation and your livelihood.
“I’ve seen women report something and get shipped off to a job in no-man’s-land,” says Sabrina Lockhart, a communications director who signed the letter. “Someone gets labeled as that person who made a complaint…and then suddenly someone doesn’t work in the capitol anymore.”
Despite Gyore’s initial complaint, Bocanegra had kept his job as a staffer for a sitting assembly member. (He was required to keep his distance from Gyore, but only for a couple of years.) He was elected to the assembly himself in 2012 and again in 2016. It was after she discovered he’d been harassing other women throughout his entire rise to power that Gyore knew what she had to do.
“My friend said, ‘How are you going to feel if you don’t sign it?’ ” she says. “I decided that signing the letter was the right thing to do.”
The “We Said Enough” letter quickly gathered signatures from more than 140 women. On October 17 the Los Angeles Times ran it as an op-ed. This time, the state government’s response was decisive. Bocanegra resigned from his assembly seat in late November after six more women came forward with allegations against him, though not without calling his accusers “opportunis[tic]” and “self-righteous” in his resignation letter. At the same time, California state senator Tony Mendoza was removed from a committee chairman post and two other commission appointments after it was revealed he had serially harassed female colleagues, including at least one who was underage at the time.
“ ‘We Said Enough’ made it abundantly clear how pervasive this problem is,” says Lockhart. “It’s a group of women who cross party lines—and we have all pretty much suffered in silence.”
California isn’t the only state in which female government staffers and representatives are organizing behind the scenes. In late October, women working in the Illinois state capitol published their own letter calling out sexual misconduct, with more than 300 signatories. Within a month, Senator Ira Silverstein of Chicago resigned his position as the state’s Democratic caucus chairman after being named as a perpetrator; both the Illinois house and senate created sexual-harassment task forces; ethics laws were amended to explicitly forbid sexual harassment; and Illinois governor Bruce Rauner signed legislation requiring annual sexual-harassment training. Similar training was held in January for Rhode Island law-makers after a female house representative revealed she was offered help with getting bills passed in exchange for sexual favors.
Sparked by the 2016 presidential election, which put in our country’s highest office a man accused of sexual misconduct by more than a dozen women, and kindled by ongoing news reports about pervasive sexism in nearly every American industry, women’s tolerance for the daily -realities of sexism and sexual harassment has hit a wall.
Stories of harassment, groping, unwanted advances and worse are not secrets among women. Through whisper networks—private conversations, text messages, e-mails or chats conveying warnings about which colleagues to stay away from—we have, for decades, relied on one another for information about predatory men at work. These networks are necessary because laws have failed to fix the problem—not only because lawmakers themselves are sometimes the perpetrators, but because sexual aggression can’t be legislated away so easily. Incidents are often intimate and behind closed doors, and perpetrators have been comfortable in the knowledge that they’re unlikely to be reported, much less punished. Indeed, they seem undeterred by existing laws; sexual harassment in the U.S. has been legally prohibited since 1964.
Meanwhile, ramifications for victims who speak up are quite real. They’re ignored, socially isolated, even fired from their jobs.
“Women who are victims have to decide, Is this so bad that it’s worth risking a roof over my head and food on my table?” says Lockhart.
But starting last year, women’s whisper networks have been turning to screams. In addition to government and the well-publicized Time’s Up movement in Hollywood, the decision among women to come forward with their experiences has spread to tech, media, journalism, the service industry and more. But what makes this effort unique—after all, women have been calling out sexism for centuries—is that it marks the first time women have told their most intimate experiences en masse to audiences that are not all female.
Banding together behind the scenes, women are parlaying our once-private conversations into open letters, shared Google documents, naming of perpetrators and all-female hiring networks. In these breakthrough efforts, some see the first glimmer of real hope for change.
The Shitty Media Men list hit the journalism world like a tornado. October 2017 saw the appearance of a document purporting to put the industry’s whisper network into writing and thereby make it more accessible to more women. The list logged the names of more than 70 male editors, writers and publishers who, according to the document’s anonymous contributors, were guilty of offenses ranging from “handsy…at parties” to “multiple alleged rapes.”
Originally, its creator was also anonymous. In January 2018, though, in advance of being outed by Harper’s magazine, journalist Moira Donegan revealed in an essay for The Cut that she had started the list.
Like many female journalists, Alanna Vagianos, the women’s editor at HuffPost, found out about the document when its existence was made public: BuzzFeed snapped it up within 24 hours of its initial appearance. (Donegan promptly took it down.)
“I was definitely surprised initially,” says Vagianos, “but in the hours afterward, discussing it with my colleagues, I think we were all sadly reckoning with the fact that it actually doesn’t surprise us that much.”
That’s because many women already knew the culture existed. “I’ve already experienced sexual harassment, and I’m only 26,” says Vagianos. In her essay, Donegan writes about seeing two of the most notorious men on the list fraternizing at a party in Brooklyn as her female friend wonders aloud, “Doesn’t everyone know about them?… I can’t believe they’re still invited to these things.”
Just after the list was made public, Megan McRobert, a union organizer at the Writers Guild of America, East, received a text from a female union member who wanted to know if the union could help her and her colleagues turn their disappointment, fear and frustration into action. “People were ready to say, ‘Okay, I don’t just want to vent to my friends on a group text. I want to stop this from happening,’ ” says McRobert.
Through word of mouth, McRobert and other women in digital media organized a group of about 30 people, predominantly female, to attend an initial meeting at the Writers Guild offices.
The two-hour meeting was held in early November and was intended to build a foundation for future conversations. Terms such as rape culture, sexual violence and sexual harassment were defined; the results of a diversity study among members were revealed; and the role of media in shaping rape culture—such as reports that scrutinize the victims rather than the perpetrators of rape—was addressed.
The Writers Guild group plans to meet again; in the meantime, several of the individuals on the Shitty Media Men list have resigned or been fired. Unlike men in other industries, though, they haven’t been excoriated to the same degree by the media—possibly because many newsrooms are overseen by men, who may run headlines outing predators in other industries but seem somewhat less inclined to discredit their own.
“It’s great that our union is coming together to address this,” says Vagianos, “but it is a systematic issue that has to be changed.”
Melody McCloskey was taking meetings with Silicon Valley investors, trying to get funding for her fledgling company, StyleSeat. An online marketplace for beauty and wellness services, the company helps customers connect with beauty professionals in their area and now serves 16,000 cities.
But at her initial meetings with venture capital firms—which last year invested just $1.5 billion out of a total of nearly $60 billion into female-founded start-ups—McCloskey ran into men who repeatedly dismissed her idea. Some pulled their female executive assistants into the meetings to help them decide whether or not to fund McCloskey. “I’m sure they’re incredibly smart and capable women,” she says, “but that’s not their job. I read that as ‘I chose not to hire qualified women, so I went and grabbed the closest one to me to weigh in.’ ”
It was 2011, and many female founders McCloskey knew at the time were running into the same problem. Until recently, though, the idea of unifying to combat their antagonistic environment wasn’t a reality. “There was so much pressure to do things ‘the male way,’ ” she says.
But last year, everything changed. As a deluge of stories on sexism and sexual harassment in the workplace made headlines, it became clear that women in Silicon Valley were still being sidelined and disrespected. A 2016 survey of more than 200 senior-level women in tech, called “Elephant in the Valley,” revealed that 90 percent of respondents had witnessed sexist behavior at conferences or off-site meetings.
Women in tech had already established a handful of progressive organizations, including Women in Technology, Women 2.0, Project Include and Wonder Women Tech, to advance companies and projects of underrepresented groups. McCloskey and her peers, meanwhile, decided to tackle the problem more directly.
“There was a big realization that we need more women in power,” she says. “We need more women in venture roles, more women starting and running companies, joining boards of other companies. So how do we make that happen?”
She and her fellow founders began to meet quarterly. The group has discussed everything from what holds younger women back in the workplace to how to prevent sexual harassment. McCloskey also notes that recently a group of all-female venture capitalists has begun holding late-night office hours to advise young women on how to get funding for their companies.
Change has not come as swiftly or as publicly to Silicon Valley as it has to government or Hollywood. But even outside these circles of female activists, an awareness, says McCloskey, seems to be building.
“I have definitely heard from more VCs saying, ‘We need to find a female partner,’ and there have been a lot of people saying, ‘This is terrible, and I pledge to be an upright organization,’ ” she says. “That seems like an extremely low bar—but for now, I will take it.”
Shanita Thomas has worked in the restaurant industry for more than 11 years, first in Buffalo, New York and then in her hometown of Brooklyn. One morning she served a regular customer she’d never waited on before: “I go and get his coffee, and as I go to greet another customer, he goes, ‘Hey, big-titty black girl, do you have enough milk in those jugs for my coffee?’ ” Thomas stopped in her tracks. “I was completely humiliated.”
When Thomas went to her boss to report the incident, he told her, “That’s old Joe. Don’t pay him any mind.” As she was harassed more and complained to her boss more, her shifts were cut until “I could barely pay my bills or cover my rent,” she says. “All because I wanted to be treated with respect at my place of work.”
Saru Jayaraman, president of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, says stories like Thomas’s are more common than not in the restaurant world. A survey conducted by the organization found that up to 80 percent of restaurant workers experience sexual harassment on the job. Because servers work primarily for tips, says Jayaraman, “you have to put up with anything the customer does to you, because the customer is always right and they’re paying your bills, not your employer.”
In many cases, restaurant managers encourage the toxic atmosphere. “You have management saying, ‘Dress more sexy; show more cleavage in order to make more tips,’ ” says Jayaraman. “You’re being coerced to encourage the harassment—not just tolerate it, but get it to happen so that you do well.”
These experiences set the tone for many women’s working lives, whether they stay in the restaurant industry or not. Because so many women begin their careers as servers, bartenders or cocktail waitresses, they learn early on to view sexual harassment and even violence as normal working conditions.
Jayaraman and ROC United have been working to combat this problem for years, well before Hollywood brought it into the public eye. She was among a handful of activists who appeared on the red carpet at the Golden Globes to protest sexual harassment, and she plans to push even harder on legislation they’ve long been working to pass—legislation that would raise the minimum wage and remove the requirement of tipping.
“We have been moving legislation on this issue for a really long time,” she says, “and we are using this moment to get it passed.”
Many women involved in these efforts feel for the first time that men are beginning to understand just how insidious and widespread the problem is. “For women, this was not new news, but I think there are a lot of good men who are kind of blown away,” Gyore says.
To that end, it’s time for everyone to get onboard as part of the solution—male or female. “I don’t need a white knight to stand up for me,” she says. “What I do need is a co-worker who would have my back.”