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SPOTLIGHT ON SEXUAL HARASSMENT: As allegations surface in journalism, film, tech, academia, alumnae tell their own stories

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(Photo used by permission of Siragusa)
Isabel Siragusa, ’07.

Fresh out of college, an SCDS alumna finally landed a job at a news desk, where she worked long hours with a male co-worker.

But she eventually earned the label of being a “disloyal employee” because she asked to be switched to a different news team and was denied.

Fortunately, she quickly became close with the co-worker, who wasn’t her boss but was her superior during the long nights when they were the only two at work.

He was married with kids and was not much older than the alumna, who asked to remain anonymous.

She confided in him that she wanted to leave the company and find a new job since the company had questioned her loyalty due to her request to switch teams.

The co-worker was really nice to her and even helped her redo her resume, she said. He was someone the alumna had become close to at the company.

But this friendship quickly changed one night.

He began to tell her how he didn’t want to work at the company anymore either.

“And I asked him, ‘What would it take to make you stay here?’” she said.

And that’s when he suggested a sex act, she said.

This instance of sexual harassment in the journalism business isn’t rare.

NPR’s senior vice president of news and editorial director Michael Oreskes resigned on Nov. 1 after two female journalists accused the top editor of sexual harassment.

And journalist and talk-show host Charlie Rose was fired on Nov. 21 by PBS, Bloomberg and CBS after sexual harassment allegations from several women.

But sexual harassment in the workplace isn’t a new problem.

Almost a twelfth of the 90,000 complaints filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Commission (EEOC) in the 2015 fiscal year were sexual harassment allegations, according to the National Women’s Law Center November 2016 Fact Sheet.

This statistic isn’t totally accurate, as about three of four people who experience harassment never report it to a manager, supervisor or union representative, according to the EEOC.

And the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace is evident through the now almost daily new allegations of sexual harassment against prominent actors and Hollywood figures.

The surfacing of actor Bill Cosby’s sexual misconduct was arguably the start of the flood of allegations of sexual harassment in the acting business, the alumna said.

These alleged instances of sexual misconduct spanned from 1965-2008 and victims came from in and out of the industry.

Another alumna has had first-hand experience with sexual harassment while working as an actor.

Isabel Siragusa, ’07, studied acting at Yale University, but never really broke into the film industry because of the attitudes toward actors, she said.

“Actors use their body to create art, so they automatically become non-human,” she said. “You are thought of as something to make money off of, and that just fuels the harassment.”

When Siragusa was in college, she took a film acting class in which an agent told the students that they were “just a product.”

And from that moment Siragusa said she was less enthusiastic about acting in movies, discouraging her from moving to Los Angeles or New York City after college.

“I don’t know if I want to be fully engaged in that world,” she said. “But unfortunately (sexual harassment) has also trickled down to the minor film industry that’s in San Francisco.”

Siragusa worked on a web series in San Francisco with a producer who was extremely inappropriate toward her, she said.

The behavior started when the producer asked her out, but she declined.

Consequently, the producer pretended to be Siragusa on social media and dating apps.

He sent random people to Siragusa’s house through these sites just because she didn’t want to go out with him, she said.

He also sent her constant text messages saying he could ruin her career, even though he could actually never have followed through on these threats.

“He had no actual power over me because we were around the same age, and it was a minor independent film in the Bay Area,” she said.

“He thought that as a producer he could act that way, which mostly comes from a long-lasting standard.”

That standard was on display in October when The New York Times and The New Yorker published the first accounts of dozens of women who alleged that film producer Harvey Weinstein sexually harassed them.

Subsequently, many actresses, including Rose McGowan, Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow, stepped forward to confirm Weinstein’s history of sexual assault, as well as their own experiences with the producer.

The alumna who worked in the news industry said that it was Weinstein’s declining career and power that enabled women to come forward.

“He was a kingmaker, and no one would want to topple a kingmaker if he’s making their payments,” she said.

But once Weinstein started to lose his power, it was easy for women to come forward, she said.

(Photo used by permission of Harlan)
Susan Harlan, ’95.

“It’s a domino effect,” she said. “When they have five people come forward, they keep getting more.

“The (first person who came forward) allowed people to see that they could (bring Weinstein down).”

But the male-dominated film industry doesn’t mean only women are harassed.

Siragusa said that her boyfriend was sexually harassed by both men and women while working in the theater world.

And “House of Cards” actor Kevin Spacey was recently accused of making sexual advances toward a 14-year-old boy at a party. Since then The Old Vic theater in London has found that Spacey sexually harassed more than 20 people from 1995-2013.

Siragusa said she wasn’t surprised by the extent of the harassment.

“There have been problems (in the film industry) forever, yet these people still make movies with these people and nominate them for Oscars,” Siragusa said.

In fact, the alumna in the news industry said she’s known about the now infamous Louis C.K. story for years now.

Comedians Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolo alleged that in 2002 the “Louie Louie” star masturbated in front of them, and comedian Abby Schachner said she could hear him masturbating over the phone in 2003 as she invited C.K. to one of her shows.

Two other women came forward to accuse C.K. of sexual harassment.

And on Nov. 10 the actor confirmed the allegations in a statement and apologized for them.

“I’m not part of the Hollywood elite, but everybody knew about (C.K.),” the anonymous alumna said.

And according to her, the Weinstein allegations were no secret either.

“If you look back at Oscar (ceremonies), people have been making jokes about (his behavior) forever,” she said.

Siragusa said the constant allegations that have been surfacing are both good and bad.

“It’s a constant reminder why I haven’t fully embraced the film industry even though I love acting,” Siragusa said.

“I just hate the business.”

But Siragusa said that she hasn’t escaped harassment by avoiding the film industry.

After working on and off as an actor, she began working for a small tech startup company in 2014.

When the whole company would go out for drinks, a powerful male employee would get drunk and “touchy-feely” with female employees, Siragusa said.

“He would touch your arm or put his arm around you or try to kiss your cheek,” she said.

And sexual harassment isn’t new to the tech world.

Founder of Draper Fisher Jurvetson, Steve Jurvetson, resigned from Draper Fisher Jurvetson and has also taken a leave of absence from Tesla after accusations of sexual harassment from women.

Suspicions about his behavior toward women arose after tech entrepreneur Keri Kukral posted “Women approached by a founding partner of Draper Fisher Jurvetson should be careful” to her Facebook in October.

Sexual harassment allegations have also recently appeared in academia.

A University of California at Berkeley graduate student in the mid-1980s, Kimberly Latta, posted on her Facebook page on Nov. 5 that emeritus humanities professor Franco Moretti “sexually stalked, pressured and raped” her while she was at the graduate school.

Moretti was a visiting professor at the university at the time.

He has denied any claims of rape and has said that he and Latta had consensual sex.

But recently two more women have come forward to accuse Moretti of sexually harassing them when they were graduate students. His allegations of harassment now extend over three campuses: Cal, Dartmouth University and Johns Hopkins University.

Susan Harlan, ’95, a professor at a private research university, has also been sexually harassed both as an undergraduate and graduate student and as a professor.

“It’s happened many,  many times,” she said.

“And I have wondered again and again, as so many women in academia do, whether the men you encounter professionally are really interested in your work.”

Academia is a profession with massive power imbalances and a lot of sexism, according to her.

(Photo used by permission of Siragusa)
Isabel Siragusa, ’07, acts in a camping scene in a thriller called “Capps Crossing” with fellow cast member Marcus Parker. The film is available on AmazonPrime

Sexual harassment is obviously about power, wielding power over another person, and taking advantage of your power,” she said.

And that’s why some of her worst offenders struck when she was an undergraduate, she said.

Male professors would often hit on her or proposition her.

But according to her, this is “part of university culture.”

And now Harlan said that she faces the “micro-aggressions” of a sexist culture.

“It’s not the same level of harassment that we’ve all been discussing for the past few weeks,” she said. “But they’re little comments and unnecessary hands on your arm, shoulder or back.

“It’s just the subtle message that your body can be touched and isn’t really completely yours.”

The person who is just casually touching a female colleague would never touch a male colleague the same way, she said.

“These things chip away at you, little by little,” Harlan said.

And what makes it worse, she said, is that these very men are the ones who are supposedly liberal and say they are feminists.

“But when you really get down to it, they see you as different,” Harlan said.

“And they treat you accordingly.”

So how do these women deal with the men who sexually harassed them?

Siragusa eventually got a restraining order against the producer of the Bay Area independent film because of his inappropriate behavior.

However, although the inappropriate displays at the tech company Siragusa worked at were in public, no one tried to say anything until a woman, who worked on his team, questioned what he was doing.

And that woman wasn’t Siragusa.

“I wish I could say that I was stronger,” she said.

“But as a woman when you have someone with power around you doing (inappropriate things), it’s hard to step away or say no, especially when you know that they’re a nice person otherwise.”

Harlan, too, has never reported any instance of sexual harassment.

“As an undergrad, you just don’t think you can report it,” Harlan said.

The male teachers who sexually harass students are the men who are grading your work, so they have power over you, she said.

“If you report someone, you know that it’s going to mess with your life in a big way,” Harlan said. “And you wonder if it’s worth it.”

The anonymous alumna said she also never reported her harasser.

She simply told her male co-worker that his proposition was inappropriate, and they never talked about it again.

In addition, she and her male co-worker stopped talking unless they had to for work.

“I thought the same things that probably a lot of women think,” she said.

“Was I encouraging him? Did he think that we were more than friends?”

Nevertheless, the impact of her first and only instance of sexual harassment is long-lasting, she said.

She didn’t tell anybody about what had happened at her first job because she said she didn’t think anybody would believe her.

It wasn’t until about six or seven years after it happened that she told some of her friends, she said.

And she still won’t go on the record about her experience with sexual harassment in the workplace because her parents are unaware of it.

“Now I feel sorry for my 22-year-old self because I really didn’t know what to do,” she said.

“Even if it happened now, I would obviously get out of the situation, but I probably wouldn’t report it.”

The anonymous alumna said that she hopes there will be new mechanisms that make it easier to report sexual harassment.

“It’s the job of a (human resources department) to limit the liability for the company and not help the employee,” she said.

“(So) going to H.R. isn’t always the best thing to do.”

—By Katia Dahmani
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