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.

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