Beyond Ailes: What Locker Room Talk Tells Us About Sexual Harassment in the TV Industry
I would be rightfully fired if I encouraged, permitted, or participated in the crass sexual harassment of a co-worker or any woman at the workplace in the same manner as Billy Bush’s recently revealed mistreatment of Nancy O’Dell and Arianne Zucker in 2005. And if I knew of any co-worker speaking of women in that manner or permitting talk approving of sexual assault, I would report them and would expect their swift termination. Nearly every workplace has a sexual harassment policy; but as we saw with the recent revelations at Fox News, sometimes written policies are not enough to combat a workplace culture that fosters the sexual objectification and harassment of women.
For nearly 16 years, Zucker has portrayed a character on Days of Our Lives. Zucker was at her workplace when Bush permitted and joined in on crude sexual harassment of both Zucker and O’Dell, his former Access Hollywood co-host.
It broke my heart to watch Bush ask Zucker for hugs moments after ogling at her and gleefully engaging in sexual assault talk by bragging about the things famous men think they can do to women without asking for permission. Bush then proceeded to overtly sexually harass Zucker by asking inappropriate questions that Zucker uncomfortably attempted to avoid answering, including “if you had to choose, honestly, between one of us… who would it be?”
Women don’t have to be within hearing range to be victimized by sexual harassment and other inappropriate sexual misconduct. Men who purport to “joke” about women, their bodies and sexuality behind their backs lay the foundation for a hostile work environment where boundaries become increasingly blurred. Conduct that creates a hostile work environment is illegal for many reasons, including the risk that casual suggestions signifying approval of touching women without their permission, especially made by an authority figure, can perversely encourage such assaults.
This is especially problematic in industries where harassment is prevalent, physical appearance is prioritized, and the reporting of incidents can cause severe career consequences. Just as inappropriate demands were made of the appearance and dress of female anchors at Fox News, the comments about O’Dell and Zucker zeroed in on their looks and attire. No written policy can counteract a workplace culture where “selling sex” is a higher priority than the fundamental respect for the safety of women employees. That’s why a sincere impetus to broadly shift workplace culture must underlie policies addressing sexual harassment and the impacts of all forms of gender-based violence in the workplace. NBC has an opportunity to enhance its policies while leading the news and entertainment industry in broadly advancing an industry-wide culture shift towards safety and respect for all employees, women included.
I’m grateful that my mother exhibited to me by her example that women are equal and don’t need to be revered, put on a pedestal, and protected as if they can’t care for themselves. Rather, I learned that women are entitled to the same respect in the workplace as men, and I have a responsibility to lead other men by example in respecting everyone equally and speaking out when I witness inappropriate banter and misconduct. Few industry leaders are better positioned than those in news and entertainment to bring those timeless lessons back into style, and I hope that NBC seizes on this opportunity.