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Sexual Harassment Rampant in Digital Media, but Women Are Fighting Back

Two years ago at the VidCon digital-video confab in Anaheim, Calif., talent manager Lisa Filipelli received a late-night text from a high-powered male exec she had dealings with: He wondered if she wanted to visit his hotel room to have sex.

The shock was like a punch to her stomach. “I was like, ‘What the fuck?’” Filipelli says. “It was out of the blue.”

Filipelli, who was VP of talent at digital content brand AwesomenessTV before leaving last year to start her own shingle, Flip Management, declined to identify the offender. She ignored the overture, but the incident rattled her. “Being a woman in the industry, you do brush things off and sweep things under the rug, because you’re told: ‘This is just how things are,’” Filipelli says.

Sexual harassment exists in Hollywood and many other industries, but the problem is particularly toxic in digital-media circles. About one-third of professional women say they’ve experienced some form of sexual harassment in the past five years, according to surveys conducted by the Center for Talent Innovation, a think tank dedicated to workforce issues — and that goes up to 52% for women working in Silicon Valley.

The start-up mind-set that traditional rules don’t apply can lead to systemic sexism. Witness the ouster this summer of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, fired by his company’s board for, among other things, fostering an environment that produced a deluge of sexual-harassment complaints. High-powered venture capitalists like Chris Sacca and 500 Startups founder Dave McClure also have been called out for their inappropriate behavior toward women.

The fact that digital companies think of themselves as radically different from other industries is troubling, says Emily Martin, VP of workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center. “They think, ‘We don’t have to worry about the stodgy HR rules, because we’re a meritocracy and the best will succeed,’” she says. “Companies that think of themselves that way really underestimate the risk of harassment they’re creating.”

With the revolting revelations about Harvey Weinstein’s decades of sexual aggression in Hollywood, other women have felt emboldened to name executives who have used their perches to blatantly inflict harm on co-workers and underlings.

After the news about Weinstein broke, at least five women posted allegations on social media accusing Andy Signore, creator of fan site Screen Junkies and the “Honest Trailers” film-parody franchise, of sexual harassment. One former Screen Junkies intern says Signore offered to masturbate in front of her. Another woman says he tried to sexually assault her on multiple occasions and that Signore threated to fire her boyfriend, who works for Screen Junkies, if she ever spoke up.

Defy Media, which owns Screen Junkies, acknowledges that its HR department had been informed of allegations about Signore two months earlier — but claims “new information” it discovered on Oct. 6 made clear “the scope and magnitude of his inappropriate actions.” Defy terminated him two days later. Signore could not be reached for comment.

As in other industries, tech companies often decide that protecting execs who are considered highly valuable to the business is more important than addressing sexual-harassment allegations. “What we’ve seen in the tech industry is that good performance outweighs bad behavior,” says Laura Sherbin, CFO and head of research at the Center for Talent Innovation in New York. It’s cheaper to settle with a victim than to lose someone who brings a tremendous amount of value to the organization, she says. “That’s the cost-benefit analysis that goes on.”

The origin of the problem is who’s at the top of the pyramid — which, for the most part, is men, critics say. The similarity among the tech companies and Hollywood is that they remain largely male-owned and -operated, says Jaclyn Friedman, author of the forthcoming book “Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All.”

Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, is perhaps the most powerful woman in tech. But Friedman notes that she’s only one of two women on Facebook’s eight-member board, along with Susan Desmond-Hellmann, CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

“Gender diversity matters only when there’s a plurality,” Friedman says. “When you have male-dominated rooms, nothing changes.”

“Gender diversity matters only when there’s a plurality….When you have male-dominated rooms, nothing changes.”
Jaclyn Friedman

Sandberg spoke out about the Weinstein scandal last week, condemning those who covered for him. “The Harvey Weinstein thing is abysmal — and it’s not just his behavior, it’s the behavior of everyone around [him],” said Sandberg, speaking at an event in Washington, D.C. “This should never happen. When it does happen, people should lose their jobs. And what he’s going through is what every person should be afraid of, so that they don’t do it.”

In many ways, the internet has been an empowering force for women executives and individual creators. Online video and social-media platforms have leveled the playing field to an extent, because they’re beyond the control of Hollywood’s traditional power structure. And the internet has provided new tools and communities for women to speak up and expose sexual predators.

“Being in the world of digital media, where female audiences are so influential, certainly has opened up many more opportunities for women to be in leadership positions,” says Kathleen Grace, CEO of New Form, the digital studio whose backers include Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Discovery Communications. “Does that mean we’re a world with no sexual harassment? No. But do we have better ways to address it and more quickly? I think so.”

Big-name YouTube stars, unafraid of being iced out of their next movie role, can’t be intimidated by studio executives or producers. “Digital creators are their own bosses — they control their own income, and they aren’t beholden to anyone,” says Filipelli, whose clients include top influencers like Ingrid Nilsen, Amanda Steele, Tyler Oakley and Kian Lawley.

Meanwhile, for all of the internet’s power to disseminate information and viewpoints that otherwise may never have seen the light of day, it also has proved to be a supercharged engine for harassment. For example, 21% of women 18-29 say they have been sexually harassed online, and 53% have been sent explicit images that they didn’t ask for, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted in January. Overall, 18% of Americans have been targets of serious online personal attacks, including sexual harassment, physical threats and stalking, according to Pew.

Many in the tech industry believe the transparency and community-building afforded by the internet offsets negatives like harassment, misinformation (“fake news”), privacy breaches and other ills that spill from online cesspools. Social media has allowed women to connect with others sharing their stories about being harassed, and to stand together.

“Things that CEOs like Harvey Weinstein used to be able to get away with, my belief is that this stuff can’t hide anymore,” says Jim Fowler, founder and CEO of Owler, a Silicon Valley start-up that provides survey-based rankings of companies and executives. “Everyone has a high-resolution camera in their pocket.”

Women must continue to come forward to reveal unacceptable behavior and hold bad actors accountable, says Lisa Sugar, co-founder and president of PopSugar, a digital-media lifestyle company. “Our voices are powerful — it’s time to raise the volume,” she says. “Victims are silenced and shamed, and aggressors go unpunished, but I am hopeful that with the recent shake-ups the tide is shifting.”

Personal accounts of sexual harassment are painful, but — especially those coming from celebrities and other public figures — can help “dispel the myth that if you’re sexually harassed it’s your fault,” says the National Women’s Law Center’s Martin. “It’s really valuable to hear why, even if you’re Gwyneth Paltrow, this is a hard problem to solve.”

That doesn’t make the issues any easier to confront. Filipelli says she’s uncomfortable publicly discussing her experiences with harassment. “The idea of speaking out is hard to do,” she says. “It’s terrible that women even question themselves about talking about it.”

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