Anita Hill: Why a Safe Working Environment Also Includes Protections Against Abuses (Guest Column)

Anita Hill Me Too survey
Courtesy of Anita Hill

For weeks, entertainment leaders have been working on myriad guidelines necessary to restart film and TV production. Their deliberations are critical to alleviating the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the industry. As the new normal is being created, nothing is more important than the economic and physical well-being of the hundreds of thousands who want to get back to work. New health and safety standards are a must. The presence of masks, hand sanitizer and thermometers, along with boxed meals, single-use makeup and delayed crowd filming, will help calm concerns about newly reopened workspaces. Everyone benefits.

But in this moment of urgency, there is an important opportunity to redefine what “safe” working conditions mean for workers in Hollywood. The evidence that the coronavirus can exacerbate existing race, gender and sexual identity disparities is growing. Intimidation, harassment, verbal abuse, bullying and retaliation — rampant in the industry — pose their own threat to entertainment workers’ health and ability to make a living. And in redesigning our workplaces, we should acknowledge that the pandemic may add to the injury that vulnerable populations are already suffering.

The #MeToo movement generated awareness and gave voice to entertainment’s sexual harassment epidemic, but many forms of harassment continue. And abuses of power continue to be a very real and pervasive problem. Workers from all ranks of the entertainment business have routinely shared horrific stories with the Hollywood Commission.

Power in Hollywood has always been easy to exploit because of the desperation for work. With an estimated 350,000 entertainment jobs lost in the past six weeks, the economic power balance has further tipped. Simply put, no worker should have to silently tolerate abuse or harassment because of the financial exigencies of the times.

Inevitably, as production returns, it will mean fewer people in close physical proximity to each other, whether on sets, in trailers or in editing rooms. Many will continue to work from home until 2021 and perhaps beyond. All of these new ways of working require a more robust view of safety. How will the entertainment industry keep its workers safe from harassment and discrimination when they are operating in decentralized “pods” or isolated workplaces where interaction with others is rare and systems or resources for reporting problems may not exist?

During the Great Recession of 2008, industry diversity and inclusion lost ground. This will likely be repeated as a result of COVID-19, just as the efforts were rebounding. As hiring gets under way, practices must ensure fair representation behind the camera and on the screen.

Hollywood’s track record on ageism is well-established. Only 11.8% of the 1,256 speaking characters in 25 best picture-nominated movies from 2014 to 2016 were 60 years of age or older, and the near-total absence of staff writers over 50 is clear evidence of systemic age discrimination. With eight out of 10 COVID-19 deaths reported in the U.S. in adults 65 and older, this vulnerable population could not only be shut out of entertainment jobs but also disappear from storytelling entirely.

The industry also needs to be vigilant about racial bias and specifically the treatment of Asian Americans and African Americans — both historically underrepresented groups in Hollywood. As COVID-19 disproportionately affects African Americans and has created a surge in anti-Asian bias in the U.S., Hollywood must pay special attention to equity in hiring and casting practices.

Hollywood is certainly not alone in navigating these incredibly complex and challenging workplace issues, but it can lead the way in establishing systems that protect vulnerable workers physically and emotionally and promote cultures of equality, respect and accountability. The industry can begin this work by addressing the following:

• Creating new or revised workplace meetings and work-from-home policies outlining one-on-one meetings or work place meetings, and informing everyone that though the locations are different, the anti-harassment and discrimination rules apply
• Revising harassment and discrimination policies to reflect updated guidance and regulations and new threats
• Having people on set to guide and monitor compliance with new rules, and making sure there are trusted systems in place for reporting violations
• Adhering to diversity and inclusion plans put in place before the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic best makes clear that everyone’s safety and well-being depends on the safety and well-being of each individual. The message that we’re all in this together is popular today. Let us not forget it as we chart the course of the new reality ahead.

Anita F. Hill is the chair of the Board of Directors and Commission Council of the Hollywood Commission, established to lead the entertainment industry to an equitable future by defining and implementing best practices that eliminate sexual harassment and bias for all workers, especially marginalized communities, and actively promote a culture of accountability, respect and equality. Hill is also a professor at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management and is counsel to the law firm Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll.