Almost half of America’s working women say they have been harassed at their jobs, a new poll has found Time
Movie mogul Harvey Weinstein. Directors James Toback and Brett Ratner. Oscar-winners Kevin Spacey and Dustin Hoffman. Actor Jeremy Piven. Comedian Andy Dick. These are the boldfaced names in the headlines lately over accusations of sexual harassment and abuse, even rape.
American women, especially, are paying attention. But they’re interpreting the news in significantly different ways based on their age and generational cohort, experts say.
The argument about generational differences goes like this: Baby-boom women (those born between 1946-1964) are more likely to shrug off grabby, gross guys in the workplace as inevitable, not worth making a big deal when it happens. Keep calm and carry on.
Generation X (1965 to early 1980s), too, have mostly kept quiet and carried on, perhaps chastened in their early working years by the blowback visited on law professor Anita Hill in 1991 when she accused a Supreme Court nominee of past sexual harassment.
From the boomer generation to the GenXers, national data surveys show increasing support for women in the workforce and for gender equality, says a leading generations expert, San Diego State University psychologist Jean Twenge, 46.
“When boomers were growing up that was not taken for granted; for Generation X it was more accepted but there was still a lot of skepticism in the 1970s and 1980s,” says Twenge. “Boomers talked about (sexual harassment and abuse), they knew it went on but it was not well publicized and it was harder for women to speak up.”
But millennials (anyone born after 1980, according to some definitions), have grown up in a different world, drinking in notions of women’s equality practically from their sippy cups, Twenge says. Sexual harassment laws are on the books. Women outnumber men in colleges. Women are accustomed to seeing female doctors and lawyers or, even more formative, seeing women playing doctors and lawyers on TV, she says.
Thus, millennial women, the thinking goes, are less likely to tolerate the kind of stuff their mothers or grandmothers had to endure and are more likely to speak up at the time if they are subjected to it.
“Gen X and millennials are more likely to take it for granted that men and women work together in the workplace and that women will be treated equally,” Twenge says. “Given these attitudes, it makes sense that (some) Gen X or (many) millennials would not think it’s acceptable and would not put up with sexual abuse.”
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Brenda Russell, a professor of applied psychology at Penn State-Berks near Reading, Pa., and a baby boomer who has studied women in different generations, says her early research showed boomers often declined to report sexual harassment or rape.
“How many in our generation would never report it because of the shame — you question yourself,” Russell says. “That’s the way we’ve been trained to feel as long as rape has been around.”
That was the case for Donna Black, 53, (from the young end of the boomer generation), a stay-at-home wife in Cleveland, a grandmother raising her 6-year-old granddaughter and a recovering alcoholic.
A former client of the Cleveland Rape Crisis Center, she was subjected to multiple sexual assaults dating back to when she was a kindergartener to as recently as last year. She remembers what she learned growing up. “What goes on in this house stays in this house — you didn’t talk about certain things,” she recalls. “You were taught to stuff all this sickness inside, which (led) me to act out in different ways that was unhealthy.”
By the time GenX women were in the workforce, abuse reports had gone up, suggesting the sense of misplaced shame was diminishing. But it did not last that long, especially after the nationally televised hearings on Supreme Court nominee — now justice — Clarence Thomas in 1991.
“Look at the Anita Hill situation, that was on their minds,” Russell says. “Maybe it worked for a little bit but there were fewer reports (of sexual abuse after that).”
But most millennials were too young to have watched those hearings. Take someone like Daijha Thompson, 19, a communications major at Syracuse University in New York. She understands why so many rape survivors decline to speak publicly, but it’s different for her and her generation.
“I would definitely speak up,” Thompson says confidently. “I know why survivors of sexual harassment and rape don’t speak out but that’s why it would make me speak up because I want to be that person who makes it common. I want others to say, ‘oh, she spoke up’ and help give other women the confidence to speak up, too.”
Alexis Verbin , 23, a child-welfare caseworker in Berks County, Pa., says women in her age group are more confident about standing up for themselves. She attributes this to being a millennial but also she has a “very strong mother who taught me to speak out if something isn’t right.”
“We aren’t going to be controlled by men or let things just happen or let it go — we’re not going to put up with (sexual abuse),” Verbin says. “Women have the same rights as men, and we’re not going to let someone take advantage of us.”
Black says she’s “grateful” to see these millennials speaking up.
“Because we deserve to have our voice be heard — it’s horrible to walk around 20 or 30 years with this inside you like I do,” she says. “I teach my granddaughter today: you tell Grandma Poppy everything! It’s important to speak out and let other women know you’re not alone and it’s ok to have a voice.”
Would millennials wait decades to come forward with accusations against their workplace tormentors? Not this hyper-sensitive generation, also nicknamed “Generation Me” by Twenge, author of a groundbreaking 2006 book, Generation Me. She examined data about millennials and found, among other things, that they are tolerant and self-confident and also differ dramatically from their elders in their attitudes about women, work and workplaces.
Many millennials have been stunned by the headlines — how could this happen in America? — about fallen Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, accused of sexual harassment, coercion, assault or rape by more than 70 women, some of them now big stars, going back to the 1970s. His downfall, followed by that of Kevin Spacey, are the most spectacular of recent takedowns of major media figures over sexual harassment and abuse accusations.
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“I was shocked by the breadth of the allegations, the length of time they have been going on, the visceral descriptions that these media outlets had been able to obtain — and most importantly, the astonishing number of people who were most likely directly involved in these attacks,” says Madeline Fishburn , 22, a business development associate in Washington.
Karin Roland, 35, is chief of campaigns for UltraViolet, the national feminist anti-rape group that deploys high-profile gestures to get its messages across (they recently sent up a plane with a banner, “Hollywood: stop enabling abuse,” to fly over the Hollywood sign). Roland is a late GenXer/early millennial who thinks the deluge of women coming forward to accuse Weinstein and others will get the attention of young women entering the workforce.
“It may be that older women were (more low-key) about harassment but laws have changed and it may be safer for some women in some industries to come forward earlier,” Roland says. “That creates a domino effect, and makes it more possible for others to come forward.”
While millennial woman may expect equality, and may be more likely to speak out against perceived sexual harassment, many also don’t recognize certain behaviors as sexual harassment. According to a recent report by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission as many as 75% of women of all ages surveyed said they experienced sex-based harassment in their workplace but only after specific behaviors, such as unwanted sexual attention, were described to them.
Russell says she knows about this. “I am finding that with my students who are younger than 30, they don’t identify certain behavior, such as coercion, as sexual harassment,” Russell says.
“They’re all kind of clueless about it because it’s never been discussed with them at the high school or middle school level,” she says. “When I give them ‘The Talk’ in (college) class I can tell from their faces they get really scared, really nervous. Most have had no experience in the workplace.”
In recent decades, the evidence about generational differences in reactions and attitudes has been conflicting. Russell says her early studies of older women found that they were more likely to keep quiet about sexual harassment than younger women. But a later, separate study by other researchers found the opposite, she says: The older they are the less tolerant they are.
“Nowadays we’re finding that really young students have more tolerant attitudes towards sexual violence and harassment because they don’t have the experience in the workplace that older women have, especially older women at a high level,” Russell says.
Richard Weissbourd, a boomer-age senior lecturer at Harvard’s Education Department, is the lead author of a recent report that suggests misogyny and sexual harassment are “pervasive” among young people, yet few parents are talking to them about it and neither are high schools or middle schools.
“Misogyny and harassment have always been around, it was the case when I was in college but women (back then) would not have abided being called a ‘b—-‘ or a ‘ho,’ ” says Weissbourd. “As men lose power at work and in academic settings (to women), this be a way of asserting dominance.”
He also blames the wider availability of online pornography, social media and pop-culture, including the lyrics in many pop songs. He describes watching students in a Cambridge bar dance “exuberantly” to a song containing an obscene term for women’s genitals.
“I’m not sure they knew what they were saying but a lot of this stuff is in the water,” Weissbourd says, thus allowing young women to become “inured” to it.
The Weinstein mess and other attendant scandals have been seized by a number of anti-rape groups, such as the National Sexual Violence Resource Center and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, to promote their campaigns against porn for its alleged role in animating sexual abuse.
Haley Halverson, 25, who heads up advocacy and outreach for NCOSE, says there are signs that many millennial women are more vocal, especially with the help of social media, but there are also signs that many are “anesthetized.”
“The millennial generation, my generation, is more inundated than any other generation in history with hyper-sexualized images and gratuitous portrayals of sexual violence against women in pornography, the media, and mainstream entertainment,” Halvorsen says, adding that entertainment production studios should be held “accountable for what they teach.”
For millennial Alyse Lupinacci, 26, a school counselor in Doylestown, Pa., the Weinstein scandal and its fallout is just one watershed moment in what might be described as a flood.
“Each time the conversation is re-established, the stigma surrounding the topic of sexual assault is lessened,” she says. “Each time we discuss this subject matter, victims feel safer to share their stories … All of those moments are hugely significant, and all of those moments help to create a safer future for everyone.”