the pattern of behaviour has continued because powerful men can often sidestep the worst consequences, writes David Rothkopf
Harassment is not limited to abuses of power by the famous. From city streets to corporate suites, it is an epidemic
It is a feature not a bug in the way the global establishment works that the president of the United States and one of the most important moguls in Hollywood are both known sexual predators. It is a feature not a bug that similar stories are an international phenomenon, like that of anti-extremism activist Henda Ayari’s revelations of her own harassment at the hands of a Muslim academic she recently asserted was the grandson of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, Tariq Ramadan.
This is the way men have designed the global system, to enable them to gain power and wield it with near impunity over women as well as other men or even children they may desire or seek to harass to satisfy other psychological needs.
That is why having a president who has been accused multiple times of sexual harassment or impropriety is not new. Once upon a time, the serial abuse of power to achieve (or cover up) sexual conquests was even celebrated in some circles as in the case of John F Kennedy. More recently it nearly ended the presidency of Bill Clinton. Sexual harassment in Hollywood and in the performing arts more broadly is a story as old as the casting couch. And of course, harassment is not limited to abuses of power by the famous. From city streets to corporate suites to the military it is an epidemic. (In the civilian workplace worldwide, substantial percentages of women report sexual harassment from one in three in one US study to 50 per cent in a recent British study. Seventy-nine per cent of women in India report some form of street harassment with the number rising to 89 per cent in Brazil, 93 per cent in Afghanistan and reaching 100 per cent in Argentina and nearly that in Egypt.)
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In my own lifetime, I have personally known three different women who were harassed by Latin American heads of state. One demanded a reporter interview him while he lay in bed nude. Another cornered a Wall Street analyst as he took her on a private tour of his capital city. And a third demanded a young NGO worker come up to his suite. We have also seen similar cases of such abuses and excesses, from the bunga bunga parties of Silvio Berlusconi, former Italian prime minister, to the harassment accusations a decade ago against former Israeli president Moshe Katsav, to similar cases against chief executives of companies in literally every corner of the globe.
Each of these cases has produced scandal. But the pattern of harassment has continued because powerful men with good lawyers and deep pockets can often sidestep the worst potential consequences of their actions through out-of-court settlements and political maneuvering. And even the poor men who might harass or abuse a woman traveling with them on a city bus in New Delhi or Mexico City have the cover of the other men and the numbing expectations of their “culture.”
Each time such a scandal happens, outrage ensues. Disturbingly, there is often more coverage of cases when they involve famous, attractive women. In other words, the visibility of these cases is often a form of exploitation itself, cloaking pruriency in the flannel of self-righteousness. But here’s what doesn’t happen: the cases don’t stop.
Why is that? It is, of course, because every major system of power in the world - political, media, military, theological - is dominated by men.
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In global politics and business the data support this. Women make up only 17 per cent of parliaments. According to a 2015 United Nations report, “Women’s representation among corporate managers, legislators and senior officials remains low, with only about half of countries having shares of women in managerial positions of 30 per cent or more, and none reaching or surpassing parity.” Pathetically predictably, one result of this is that according to a 2016 study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union eight out of 10 women parliamentarians surveyed said they had “experienced some form of psychological or sexual harassment or violence.”
When numbers are this high in this many places worldwide, it is not about national cultures or legal systems, it is about the only system that exists everywhere: a system run by men for men that protects men and enables them to be their worst selves with disproportionately low risk of paying a price for it.
The data is endless. The stories are tragic. The abuse continues. It is vitally important that we hear the brave voices of women calling out their harassers. It is essential we do what we can to ensure that there are serious financial consequences for corporations that harbour and thus enable such behaviour. But in the end, the cold hard fact is that the only way to produce a system that protects us all equally wherever we may live, regardless of historical traditions, is to ensure that those who write the laws and set and enforce the rules actually reflect the make-up of society. Today’s headlines just remind us that until women are fully equally represented at the power centres of society worldwide, as they increasingly are in places like the UAE, they will be victimised by the men who have ensured the one and only truly global system is the one that perpetuates the abuse and subjugation of women.
David Rothkopf is CEO of The Rothkopf Group, a columnist for the Washington Post, senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and most recently author of The Great Questions of Tomorrow