OPINION: Apologies in #MeToo cases don’t erase damage that persists

Journalism was not my first career, but after more than 20 years, it is the industry I’ve worked in the longest.

My entry into news reporting was the first time I worked in a male-dominated field and it was one of the few times I worked with men who were not directly supervised by women.

During my earliest years as a reporter, I would experience my most memorable #MeToo moment.

In summary, three male newsroom leaders on separate occasions extended invitations to lunch, dinner and a meeting, ostensibly to discuss my career, but later revealed — through a hand on my knee, an attempted kiss and an indecent proposal— to be something else entirely.

In the years since the #MeToo movement came to the forefront, powerful men in almost every industry have scrambled for a defense as they watched their careers implode. Recent headlines include names like Scott Stringer, the mayoral candidate in New York accused of groping a female waitress who worked in an establishment that Stringer co-founded. In Georgia, Donald Richard Donovan, a district attorney in Paulding County, was indicted in February on charges related to a sexual harassment claim from a female employee.

Charlotte Alexander, associate professor and founder of the Legal Analytics Lab at Georgia State University, who recently wrote about her work in the AJC when New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was accused of sexualized workplace behavior, has spent years studying the patterns in public statements made by powerful men (and a few women) who are the subject of #MeToo reports.

Findings show the accused offer more defenses and denials than admissions of guilt, and those defenses and denials are often angry. Apologies appeared in about one-third of the statements they made. Further analysis showed neither the accusers nor the accused have a common understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment, and many of the statements they offered were centered around the accused’s power and perspective.

Alexander’s work is part of a larger effort to offer insight to members of the public — perhaps in the form of an online, query-ready portal — into how sexual harassment and other types of cases are managed in the courts, what the outcomes are and how the data might be predictive.

The details of my own experiences are admittedly fuzzy except for the one meeting that took place midday in the corner office of a well-respected male editor. That conversation I remember with unparalleled clarity.

It started with the usual questions: How are things going? What are your goals as a journalist? But it wasn’t long before the conversation turned into a proposition — perhaps, he suggested, I should use my vacation time to accompany him on his next assignment out of the country.

This was not because I had expressed any interest in becoming a foreign correspondent.

My duties, as he described it, would be to serve as a companion. To spend my days as I pleased while he was out reporting but to make myself available after hours.

My indignation was immediate.

Nevertheless, he persisted.

My response so many years ago to those unwelcome advances was to shut up and shut down as so many women have done for decades until #MeToo left us feeling empowered enough to speak up.

At the time, I told myself it was no big deal. I never reported the incidents to human resources in part because reactions from the few colleagues I consulted made me doubt my own conviction. The reactions ranged from general concern to questions: Are you sure he (they) said that? Did that, mean that? Did he (they) apologize?

The apology — its existence or sincerity — is often what most grabs the interest of the general public in cases of sexual harassment, Alexander said.

But apologies are an individual act.

“It is an individual person maybe fully recognizing what he or she did,” Alexander said, but “If we leave intact the workplace structures that enable individuals in power to abuse that power in the form of sexual harassment, those struggles are just going to reproduce more people in power that are just going to abuse that power again.”

The important question is not if someone is sorry but if they recognize that their actions are inseparable from the power imbalance between them and the people they are harassing.

#MeToo has generated a lot of deep conversation about consent, she said, but in the case of workplace harassment, the standard is not consent, it is welcomeness.

“Looking at it through a structural lens means you can’t just stop at what you think,” said Alexander. “You have to think about everyone around you and what they think.”

I thought I was unaffected by those experiences, but in retrospect, I spent the rest of my tenure at that institution with a certain level of anger always simmering just below the surface. The kind of anger that weighs you down the moment you walk in the door. The kind of anger that might lead those in your midst to saddle you with a pejorative stereotype that I won’t repeat here.

In the end, it was a woman editor who would throw me a lifeline by helping me identify career-changing opportunities without subjecting me to the anger-inducing interactions I had experienced with men in power who seemed to have little respect for personal boundaries.

Having more women in leadership roles is just one way to change corporate structures that enable harassment, Alexander said. Other strategies include developing less hierarchical structures and establishing clear procedures and processes for reporting sexual harassment.

For far too many organizations, the answer to #MeToo-era demands has become sexual harassment training, but research shows that the traditional programs are ineffective and mostly designed to shield companies from lawsuits. To have more impact, training has to shift from prioritizing litigation avoidance to creating the kind of workplace culture and community that is respectful, harassment-free and beneficial to all employees, Alexander said.

I wish I had known better how to manage my own experience back then. I wonder how things might have worked out differently if there had been a culture in which boundaries were understood and accepted. A culture in which I could believe, in spite of the corporate hierarchy, that I was the one holding power.

Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at nedra.rhone@ajc.com