A formal whisper network won’t save women from sh*tty men in media
Wednesday night a spreadsheet filled with names started getting passed around among women in media.
Slowly names of men in New York and national media were added to the list as it was opened and edited by dozens of anonymous women attempting to keep one another safe. Some of those names, highlighted in red, represented men “accused of physical sexual violence by multiple women.” In total, more than 70 names appeared on the list before it was made private.
Rumors of sexual assault and harassment were reported alongside instances of bias and “creepy DMs.” And the document — called “SHITTY MEDIA MEN” — came with a warning that none of the allegations had yet been investigated, so “take everything with a grain of salt.”
The spreadsheet reads as a messy, incomplete way of formalizing the age-old whisper networks used by women in order to share information with one another, passing along words of warning to keep their friends and colleagues safe. These loose networks of women — connected via apps, social media, or simple word of mouth — seem to pop up in just about every industry, and are used as a way to circumvent formal HR reporting systems, which can often be slow and ineffective.
And if these whispers are going to ever be put down in writing, it certainly makes sense that journalists would be the ones to do it.
Women in journalism are expected to report on and write about men harassing women in other industries. At times this can be painfully ironic, as these women may be experiencing harassment and abuse in their own industry and workplaces at the same time. So it should come as no surprise that this document popped up, particularly during a week when the accusations of harassment and sexual assault at the hands of high-powered Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein seem to come in at an impressive clip.
The list is what our whisper networks look like
The spreadsheet is a physical manifestation of the frustrations women in media and every other industry experience every day.
It may seem unfair to lump the small microaggressions in with the larger accusations of rape and sexual harassment, but the “shitty men” document seemed to act as an opening of the floodgates. Before it went private, the document gave women a place they could go to share things with one another that they’d been keeping to themselves or whispering about for years.
The list is what our whisper networks look like.
Yes, it’s messy, but women who look at it will see what they need to see. Maybe the women accessing it will see a name and feel a little less crazy, a little more validated in knowing that weird interaction they had with that media guy in a bar was, in fact, creepy.
We look at this list and know to take it with a grain of salt. The fact is, just naming names in a spreadsheet can’t bring about actual change. Names in a document won’t shift the power dynamics that people in positions of authority exploit to harass, intimidate, or assault others.
Nevertheless, there is truth in that spreadsheet, a sort of validation of one’s lived experience.
men are scared of this list but are they as scared as women are trying to navigate a world in which sexual harassment & abuse is the norm?
— Anne Helen Petersen (@annehelen) October 12, 2017
The spreadsheet functioned, in theory, as a digital safe space (of course, there’s truly no such thing, but that’s beside the point). Women working everywhere create their own safe spaces where they can speak freely or warn one another about the people they should stay away from in the workplace.
Most of the time those warnings are whispered to one another in relatively private parts of an office, but sometimes women use group chats on social media, Signal, or WhatsApp. And the warning networks certainly aren’t limited to industries like Hollywood and media.
“In the world of women working in kitchens, there is a very open dialogue about the men we are surrounded with,” a chef who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retribution said.
“Even if the chef is a man, and we know we can’t do anything to stop his behavior, we always seem to band together and have a buddy system. I don’t smoke, but I have taken smoke breaks with women to avoid them being alone with some of the guys we work with.”
Women in other industries have also set up private Facebook groups or Slack channels to warn one another about men to avoid. Others actually keep physical lists that they can compare with one another.
None of these are perfect systems, but they are an attempt to keep people safe in a world where institutional protections often put accusers at even more risk. Women who do come forward to confront harassers or abusers are often shamed and even forced to leave the industry they’re fighting to work in.
Even in fields that have gone through very public reckonings with sexual harassment and abuse, not much has changed.
For example, prominent astronomer Geoff Marcy was found to have violated the University of California, Berkeley’s harassment policies over many years, but he didn’t resign from his position until after a Buzzfeed investigation exposed his behavior.
Even in fields that have gone through very public reckonings with sexual harassment and abuse, not much has changed
Since that time, multiple other scientists in astronomy and other disciplines have been forced to resign after harassment complaints, but still, the situation for women working in universities doesn’t seem to have changed much at all.
“Have other things changed? I don’t know. I think there are more diversity committees now,” said a woman in astronomy who wished to remain anonymous.
“And there are some good groups and things online where people share ideas about diversity and support each other. But there have been, as far as I can tell, no substantive changes in any kind of consequential policies. Reporting is still difficult, getting most universities to act to protect victims of harassment is still almost impossible.”
Changes, in short, are slow-to-nonexistent. And so women will continue to use their well-established whisper networks to warn one another via group text, private social media message, or in person when someone could be at risk.
But until work environments are consistently safe, with balanced power structures and real consequences, no amount of whispering will save us.