harassment in the workplace and Margaret Atwood’s ‘Alias Grace’ on Netflix

First The Handmaid’s Tale, now Alias Grace, everyone’s talking about Margaret Atwood, Canada’s high priestess of fiction. Netflix has a new adaptation for us to binge on: Alias Grace. It’s based on Atwood’s 1996 novel.

Here in France, the title is “Captive”. I started watching it last weekend and I’m loving it. It’s well-timed because it resonates with current events.

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Please read this excellent article about Alias Grace and sexual harassment (and my personal contribution below.) The author is Lynn Stuart Parramore, a cultural theorist who studies the intersection between culture and economics. 

Sarah Polley’s “Alias Grace,” the new Netflix series based on Margaret Atwood’s riveting novel about an Irish-Canadian immigrant maid convicted of the murder of her employer and his lover, is a perfect fit for this Harvey Weinstein moment — a soul-wrenching story of what can happen to a female in the workplace where men wield the power.

Set in the mid-19th century in and around Toronto, Canada, the mini-series explores the horrendous cost to both individuals and to society when men demand sexual favors from women in their employ as casually as they order tea. Today, with the trapdoor blown off the dark cellar where women still sit and watch their contributions and careers dissolve as men treat them as objects, the most poignant takeaway from “Alias Grace” is how little has changed.

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What is the cost of talents wasted, output stymied, careers derailed? We don’t know the full answer, because up-to-date research on the economic impact of sexual harassment is scandalously lacking.

In “Alias Grace,”the teenaged Grace tries her best to learn the ropes: Never let your guard down. Try not to be noticed, especially by men of higher status. But it’s no use: over and over, she finds herself the object of the careless and often sadistic sexual attention of the men who control her livelihood. Each time she tries to better her circumstances, she is caught in an implacable machine of exploitation that threatens not only her employment, but her sanity and, ultimately, her freedom.

Surely we’re now beyond all that. Right? Wrong.

According to a survey conducted by Cosmopolitan magazine, one in three American women attests to sexual harassment on the job, in all sectors. Harassment impacts women economically. Women who have been harassed are far more likely to change jobs than those who didn’t. These shifts can upset a career trajectory. Researchers found that women, compared to men, experience far more serious effects from interruptions to their work path.

Comment from Juliet in Paris – Harassment has impacted me economically (not to mention emotionally) and interrupted my career trajectory. Because of harassers, I have endured multiple stretches of unemployment during my working career. Here in France and over a period of twenty years, I have left five different companies because of harassment, bullying or “interference” from men. (One of my harassers, a senior Partner in a global law firm, was a woman.) Four of those companies were law firms, one was a renowned international news agency. In each case, I was either financially compensated (insufficiently) or tossed out into the street. My crime? I dared to stand up and talk back to my tormenter. And so I was the problem, not the one who had the power and was abusing it. I was called insubordinate. I remember looking the word up in the dictionary, just to double-check its meaning – defiant of authority; disobedient to orders. And I wondered, if I were a compliant or obedient person, how should I be expected to respond to a tormenter?

In each case, I found myself utterly alone. Not one single office colleague – who were themselves targets or witnesses of the harasser – nor the Human Resources departments who were 100% cognizant of the recurring problem – supported or defended me. They all turned their backs and closed their eyes. Enablers, all of them.

My friend Monique has been through exactly the same experiences. Today she happily runs her own B&B business; happy because she’s the boss and runs her own show.

Both of us (and a million other women) have taken an economic hit and endured financial and emotional strain due to unemployment caused by harassers. And the harassers who tormented me and Monique (and dozens of other women) … where are they today? Doing very well indeed. Still working, still raking in the big money. Utterly uncaring, unrepentant and unpunished for their actions.

Alias Grace gives us a penetrating artistic portrait of the harm caused by sexual harassers, even as the horror of the Weinstein allegations has issued a wake-up call.

Many women have suffered long-term career effects as they lowered their aspirations and narrowed their field of opportunity to avoid a repeat of the degrading experience. Those who stood up to hostile work environments, meanwhile, were often penalized with career stagnation and ostracization.

***

8 thoughts on “harassment in the workplace and Margaret Atwood’s ‘Alias Grace’ on Netflix

  1. Juliet, thank you for this well-written and stirring disclosure. I sincerely hope that all these troubles are behind you now. Thanks for sharing with us. I loved Handmaid’s Tale, can’t wait to see this new one.

  2. Really good and timely piece, thanks for that. What a shocker! One wonders how such abuse can be allowed and repeated in modern-day France…

    • I wondered that myself, Anita, until I understood that in this respect France is not at all modern. French employees at management level (French employees at all levels, in fact) have never attended a training program or learned leadership skills, conflict resolution skills, or even basic skills for motiving and inspiring others. They are completely untrained in these areas. Coupled with the clueless and laissez-faire attitude of HR Departments across this country, it is not surprising that such abuse is allowed and repeated. In France, HR policies and procedures lag twenty years behind their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. HR staff is utterly unequipped and, as I said, untrained to deal with this sensitive subject. Let’s hope the repercussions from the Weinstein affair shakes things up.

  3. Great post and very relevant. Sexual harassment is still such a problem in the work place and it’s discouraging that things haven’t changed much over the years. Thank you for writing about this and helping to spread awareness. Wish you all the best – speak766

    • Dear speak766, I woke up this Sunday morning to find your footprints, so to speak, on my blog. Thanks so much for visiting, liking, and leaving your comment. When I am tormented by a “superior” in the workplace (ha! what a word), I do not feel shame, I feel rage. I don’t understand this shame thing, it needs to be abolished. Or rather, it needs to be turned around. It is the harasser who needs to be (collectively) shamed. I believe and hope that the Weinstein affair is a dividing line, speak766, for Before and After. Even here in Old World France, it has had strong repercussions. We cannot go back to before. Now, let’s move forward, unimpeded, and get our work done. Best wishes to you, too.

  4. The scandalous France Telecom affair shines a strong spotlight on not only the ineptitude, but the abuse of certain HR personnel in France:

    PARIS (Reuters) – Paris prosecutors want France Telecom, the former monopoly now known as Orange, and its former boss Didier Lombard to go on trial for psychological harassment in connection with a wave of staff suicides in 2008-2009, sources said on Thursday. (July 2016)

    Lombard was head of the firm when more than 30 employees committed suicide during that period, a decade after privatisation. Unions said forced relocations and impossible performance targets were behind the deaths. Six other executives, three of them still with Orange, should face either the same harassment charge or lesser charges including aiding harassment.

    • Thanks for mentioning this, Jonnyboy. This scandal of suicides (which they tried to hush up) rocked the nation. But there are many more harassment scandals within the Ministry of National Education, Peugeot, Renault, in the halls of the government National Assembly … the list is too long.

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