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The culture of harassment goes way beyond Harvey Weinstein

CBS News logo CBS News 5 days ago Aimee Picchi

Iman Oubou, the founder of media startup Swaay, said she knew sexual harassment was a problem for women in business, but she still found herself dismayed when she started raising money for her company.

"One of my very first experiences was with a male investor who didn't want to meet me anywhere else besides his hotel room," she recalled. "He was insistent. He said, 'I only have a couple hours. I have to get to the airport. The only way is if you come to my hotel room.'"

She refused and instead met him in the hotel restaurant. "I was wearing a pencil skirt, like a lot of women wear, and the first comment I ever got from him was, 'Oh, did you wear that pencil skirt just for me?'" she said, adding that she didn't push back because of fears of how she'd be viewed. "I didn't want to come across as uptight, but it's offensive when I'm there on a professional basis."

Oubou said the more she talked with other women who are starting businesses and raising money, the more she understood how widespread the problem is. A string of high-profile sexual harassment cases -- Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and former Fox News star Bill O'Reilly among them -- may raise hopes that such workplace abuses may eventually become a rarity, although research correlates male-dominated industries with sexual harassment. 

So it's fair to ask how much will change, given that women hold one out of five board seats of Fortune 500 companies and the executive suite remains mostly male, according to Catalyst. 

"Every female founder, every woman trying to achieve great things and make her career dreams happen has a horror story about a man in power," Oubou said.  "There's a portion of women out there who don't feel comfortable. Maybe they haven't documented anything and are scared they won't be believed and will be called drama queens." 

Women face particular problems in male-dominated fields like technology, finance and transportation. Silicon Valley, where the corporate workforce is primarily male, is currently embroiled in a number of sexual harassment crises, including high-profile venture capitalists being called out for or admitting to misconduct. 

The "bro" culture of Silicon Valley is linked with higher levels of sexual harassment: 60 percent of women in tech say they've experienced unwanted sexual advances, higher than the overall US rate of about 40 percent to 50 percent. 

Men are less likely to see problems with gender diversity, according to a new study from consulting firm McKinsey. That may add to the problem because if men are running the show but fail to notice a lack of women in the C-suite, change may be slow in coming. 

In addition, fewer women are hired for fewer entry-level roles than men, even though more women than men are graduating from college today, McKinsey noted. Representation shrinks at every step up the corporate ladder, it added.

"Men are more likely to think the workplace is equitable; women see a workplace that is less fair and offers less support," McKinsey wrote. "Compared with the modest gains women made in prior years, there are signs this year that women's progress may be stalling."

Venture capital has emerged as a particularly unfriendly place for women, as documented by former Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Doerr investment partner Ellen Pao, who unsuccessfully sued her ex-employer for gender discrimination. In her book "Reset," Pao wrote about the treatment she experienced while at the firm, such as being harassed by a Kleiner junior partner with whom she had previously had a relationship as well as being left out of meetings and outings with male executives. 

Pao, who now works for Kapor Capital, said she gave up millions from Kleiner because she refused to sign a nondisparagement agreement. 

"I turned it down so I could finally share my story," she wrote in an excerpt of her book. "I was one of the only people who had the resources and the position to do so. I believed I had an obligation to speak out about what I'd seen." 

Pao had the status, not to mention the financial wherewithal, to speak out. But many women who've been harassed or experienced abuse don't. Former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson, whose sued former Fox News Chairman Roger Ailes for sexual harassment, wrote in The New York Times that the type of agreements that Pao refused to sign effectively silence women and keep their abusers in power. 

"This veil of secrecy protects serial harassers by keeping other potential victims in the dark, and minimizing pressure on companies to fire predators," she wrote. "Any company that is serious about addressing this problem -- including the Weinstein Company -- should waive the nondisclosure agreements of women who report sexual harassment, so they can tell their stories publicly."

To be sure, there are signs of change. For one, the allegations against Weinstein appear to be prompting businesses to rethink their relationships with The Weinstein Company. Among them may be Amazon, with which The Weinstein Company is involved in two new series, while Apple killed a deal with the company, according to Deadline.com. 

Consumers, who aren't likely to recognize a producer's name on a movie, are paying attention after stars including Angelina Jolie alleged they were targeted by Weinstein. He was also accused of allegedly raping three women, according to The New Yorker

"This is a person for all intents and purposes is the Hollywood brand," said Deb Gabor, CEO of brand strategy consultancy Sol Marketing. "He's a star maker, he's a hit maker. He's held in esteem at a level that is higher than God, and when he goes down, a lot of Hollywood goes down."

The combination of money and power may explain why Weinstein's alleged behavior wasn't publicly known for years. Former New York Times reporter Sharon Waxman wrote that the Times "gutted" a piece she was reporting more than a decade ago about Weinstein and sexual harassment allegations. She claimed Weinstein pressured the newspaper to pull the story, 

"I knew he was a major advertiser in the Times, and that he was a powerful person overall," she wrote. "But I had the facts, and this was the Times. Right? Wrong."

The Times said its former top editors "have no recollection of being pressured over Ms. Waxman's story." (The Times published a piece earlier this month with allegations from women who said they were harassed by Weinstein.)

Businesses are increasingly paying attention to their brands, which can be deeply damaged by sexual harassment. The Weinstein Company's brand is now tarnished, not only with movie-goers but with potential employees and business partners, Gabor noted. 

"Brands exist in 360 degrees," she said. "It's inside and outside, and employees are part of the brand and customers of the brand. It'll be really hard for them to hire people. The Weinstein Company hasn't made it look like they are hospitable place for women to work."

Gabor added, "That's half the people in the world."

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