Harvey Weinstein: The Confluence of Power and Sexual Harassment. A Q&A with Professor Thema Bryant-Davis

The New York Times reported Thursday that multiple women have made allegations of sexual harassment against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein stretching back over decades. In that time, Weinstein reached settlements with at least eight women. 

Weinstein’s attorney, Lisa Bloom, told the Times that her client was “an old dinosaur learning new ways,” and that she’d explained to him that “due to the power difference between a major studio head like him and most other in the industry” his behavior “can be perceived as inappropriate, even intimidating.”

In a 2015 internal memo, a Weinstein Company employee wrote: “I am a 28 year old woman trying to make a living and a career. Harvey Weinstein is a 64 year old, world famous man and this is his company. The balance of power is me: 0, Harvey Weinstein: 10.”

Bloom has since resigned and Weinstein was fired Sunday.

With an uneven distribution of power, sexual harassment in and out of the workplace can go unnoticed. For many, it’s a frightening situation to navigate. According to a 2016 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission survey, just 6 to 13 percent of people who have been the targets of sexual harassment file a complaint.

We spoke to Thema Bryant-Davis, a professor with OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine, Pepperdine University’s online Master of Arts in Clinical Psychology with an Emphasis in Marriage and Family Therapy about sexual harassment, the psychological impact of power dynamics, and what needs to be done to address these issues.

Is the combination of power dynamics and sexual harassment worse in Hollywood than other industries?

What makes it more intense in Hollywood is that there are the limited resources, or the limited opportunity. So whenever you have a field where the possibility of gaining entry is very difficult and is, in a lot of places, subjective, that creates more of a climate for abuses of power. And where we also see a lot of vulnerabilities are fields that are traditionally dominated by men. So having few women at a work site can also increase the vulnerability for the women who are there.

Is this mostly a workplace issue, or does this power dynamic happen outside of the office?

It happens outside of the office as well, but what creates the additional stress is that the person’s livelihood is at stake. When you’re walking down the street, yes, people would like to be able to walk from one place to another without being harassed, or without the catcalls. But there can be that sense of, “If I can get off this block, or off this street, or away from this construction site, then I’ll be OK.”

But when it happens around housing discrimination or around a workplace then there is this intense vulnerability because of what we call in psychology “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.” At the base, it really is about the physiological needs, and about safety. I can’t work on growing and thriving and career development if, at the bottom, I’m not safe. People spend the majority of their day at work. So now you’re dealing with the stakes being really high because it’s the way you’re hoping to provide for yourself and for your family, and there is limited access to roles and opportunities.

In a lot of ways the network is small, so if this person wants to block me, not only may they not hire me, but they can also call all of their buddies — powerful people who are controlling the gate. So now I’m not just blocked from this particular company. With just one phone call, this person can ruin my opportunities at other places as well.

How does the power itself play a role in the psychological dynamic between two people in an office setting?

With sexual harassment there can be two components. One is “quid pro quo,” which just means “this for that.” So the way the power plays out is, “you do this thing for me” — which is go out on a date, or sexual favors — whatever those requests are, spoken or implied, “and I have the power to give you a job or a promotion or to give you the project that you want.”

Power plays a big role because without that threat, or that promise, or that guarantee, then I’m not able to make the demand. If it’s the highest executive, they have the capacity to give you opportunities for success and to make you fail, regardless of your gifts or abilities. It also creates a dynamic of silence where you don’t know who to go to. If a lower-level person is harassing you, it’s easy to look at the job tree and figure out where you can go for help.

But if it’s a person at the top of the tree, you might think, “Who am I going to go to when the person who handles these complaints works underneath the power of this person?” It can feel even more overwhelming that this person does have the capacity to make good on their threats and to make your life better or worse. In that situation, there really isn’t someone you can go to who has power over them.

Is it always men who exert this kind of power?

No. The victim can be male or female and the offender can be male or female, and there are multiple instances of both.

What about the “I’m an old dinosaur learning new ways” excuse?

People are able to get away with sexual harassment for many years. We know from a psychological perspective that the more someone does something considered high-risk, the more they must believe there’s no consequence for their actions. They believe they’re infallible and beyond reach. For each year someone is able to continue doing it, the more it’s become normal. Everybody adjusts and he believes, “this is what power gets me.”

The quote from now-President Trump, which some people dismissed as locker room talk, is an example of the notion that, if you have power, you can just do this to people. So some people are walking around with that mindset and experience. Unfortunately, because they have not faced consequences, they have actually received what they wanted, and that encourages the behavior. It’s not an excuse, but it is a reality of him thinking that he can just pay people off and do what he wants to do. Wealthier people are either not facing consequences or the consequences aren’t really affecting their day-to-day life.

Have things changed for power dynamics and sexual harassment?

There have definitely been improvements. Places now have policies in place and mandated trainings. People have also gotten the message that there is a need for repeated training. So it’s not enough at a company to just do something once, as employees are coming and going. So it’s not just education, but policy enforcement.

The growth is in the area of awareness, but we still need more work in terms of follow-through and consequence. Especially for those who are higher-up. If someone finds out that a custodian has done something offensive they’re more likely to penalize or fire them. But the higher you go up, the more you can be protected from the consequences because people value your contribution more than they value the wellbeing of your subordinates. 

This interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Citation for this content: OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine, the online clinical psychology master’s program from Pepperdine University.