News & Politics

'You'll Never Work Again': Women Tell How Sexual Harassment Broke Their Careers

Actors, writers, comedians and journalists speak out about the toll that sexual assault and harassment in the workplace took on their futures.

Photo Credit: Denis Makarenko / Shutterstock

As women come forward with accusations of sexual harassment in politics, media, entertainment and other fields, following the flood of allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein, it is striking how many of their stories share the same ending.

Either the alleged abuse, the victim’s refusal to stay quiet, or both, slams the door on critical job opportunities and puts a serious – sometimes terminal – dent in her career. In some cases the victim never works in her industry again.

We spoke to a number of women who have come forward about the costs that sexual harassment imposed on their futures and careers. As society debates what sort of consequences should befall their alleged abusers, it is clear that these women have already suffered a penalty. 

“There are coming to be consequences for those actions, but it’s too little too late,” said one of the women, former DC Comics editor Janelle Asselin. “For the people who were harassed and assaulted, the consequences are something we’ve been living with for years.”

The comic-book editor

“The longer I read comics, the more I feel the possibilities are limitless,” said Asselin, reflecting on her time as an editor at the publishing powerhouse behind Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman and big-budget superhero movies such as the current Justice League.

“If you’re at DC, you’re at the pinnacle of comics,” Asselin said. “You feel like you’ve made it into this amazing club where only an elite few get to work. It was a dream come true.”

Asselin rose to be the associate editor of one of DC’s most treasured properties – the Batman comics. From her perch, she shepherded one of DC’s first bisexual characters, Starling, into existence and put the brakes on sexist plot devices.

“There was a storyline in a Robin comic where the writer wanted the female villain to be tricked by chocolate. Because she’s a woman,” Asselin recalled with a laugh. It was her first time objecting to a major storyline, and she won.

But her time with DC would be short-lived. After she and a number of women reported Eddie Berganza, one of the company’s most esteemed editors, to HR for making sexual comments in 2010, Berganza received a promotion.

Asselin quit.

Berganza, who has fired earlier this month following a BuzzFeed report about the allegations against him, has not publicly responded to the accusations and did not return a request for comment from the Guardian, nor did DC.

Earlier this month, Asselin tweeted: “I loved my job at DC until that year that things went south. I never would’ve left if it hadn’t been for DC’s lack of respect for the women who came forward. My career and life could be very different if Eddie Berganza hadn’t been what he was.”

“I underestimated what the psychological impact of reporting him and watching DC promote him anyway would be,” Asselin told the Guardian. By the end, “I hated going to work, because I had a very negative view about the company and their priorities.”

Asselin took a new position with Disney but was later laid off. Working as a comics journalist and starting an independent publishing company gave her some satisfaction, but ultimately, she burned out. Today, Asselin is a claims adjustor for a workers’ compensation insurer.

“My career was forever impacted by this,” she said. “It’s hard to know what would have happened if they had done something … But I feel like a lot of the women who left would have still been there.”

The TV writer

Kater Gordon’s career reached a peak many writers only dream of in fall 2009, when she shared an Emmy as a writer on the second season of Mad Men.

She hasn’t worked in television since.

The reason, she recently told the Information, is that the show’s creator, Matthew Weiner, sexually harassed her. The incident robbed her of all her confidence and placed her in a “lose-lose situation”: She felt it could end her career if she challenged him, but she didn’t feel like she could continue to work with him if she didn’t.

Weiner denies he harassed her. After leaving the Mad Men writer’s room, Gordon’s attempts to stay in television were dogged by tabloid rumors that she and Weiner were in a relationship.

“I had the Emmy, but instead of being able to use that as a launch pad for the rest of my career, it became an anchor because I felt I had to answer to speculative stories in the press,” she said. “I eventually walked away instead of fighting back.”

In an interview with the Guardian, Gordon – who is setting up a nonprofit to help victims of sexual harassment – said, “We are all paying a cost for harassment.”

“By removing talented, capable, willing people from the workforce, we are hindering our ability to capitalize on the full potential of our entire society. When large portions of the population feel unsafe or completely remove themselves or they’re involuntarily removed from the workforce, we’re limiting our potential. On a large scale.”

The costume designer

In 2010, Emma Bowers was one of the thousands of Hollywood strivers who perform creative work, for little to no pay, with the hope of gaining a toehold in the industry.

It made her highly exploitable, she said. Bowers’ trade was costume design. When she took on unpaid work for Andy Signore, the creator of YouTube series Honest Trailers, she claims, he sexually harassed her and responded viciously when she talked about his conduct to co-workers. Signore has not made a public statement about the allegations, and did not respond to request from the Guardian for comment.

“It killed my desire to work in the industry,” Bowers told the Guardian. “I had kind of this meltdown. I said, ‘I’m done with this industry, I don’t want to be in this world any more.’ And after that, I wasn’t.”

Today, she works in animal rescue, sometimes running educational workshops for kids. “The animals and the children are nicer to me than anybody in the film industry ever was,” she said with a laugh.

The reporter

Michael Oreskes spent decades at the top of his field, first as the Washington bureau chief for the New York Times, then as the editorial director of NPR.

At least one reporter who accused him of sexual harassment said Oreskes stripped her of the confidence to reach the same heights.

“When I first went to see him, it was after screwing up my nerve to try to be bold and maneuver myself into a better job, and after what happened with him, I never really tried that again,” she told the Washington Post.

Oreskes has not publicly commented on the claims of harassment, but in an internal memo obtained by CNN, he wrote, “I am deeply sorry to the people I hurt. My behavior was wrong and inexcusable, and I accept full responsibility.”

The reporter, who asked to remain anonymous so as not to damage her employment prospects, added: “The worst part of my whole encounter with Oreskes wasn’t the weird offers of room service lunch or the tongue kiss but the fact that he utterly destroyed my ambition.”

The actors

Sophie Dix felt like she was on the verge of success. Then she met Harvey Weinstein.

Now a screenplay writer, Dix in the 1990s was an actor with a growing repertoire, scoring roles opposite Donald Pleasence and Colin Firth. Weinstein, she claims, interrupted her rise after he sexually assaulted her in a hotel room one night and she refused to keep his attack to herself.

“I was met with a wall of silence,” she told the Guardian. “People who were involved in the film were great, my friends and my family were amazing and very compassionate, but people in the industry didn’t want to know about it, they didn’t want to hear.”

Dix doesn’t know exactly what happened behind the scenes, but she never landed another movie role again.

Part of her was all right with that. “I decided if this what being an actress is like, I don’t want it,” she said. She threw herself into her screenwriting career. But the assault, she said, was “the single most damaging thing that’s happened in my life” and derailed her acting ambitions.

Weinstein has repeatedly denied accusations of non-consensual contact, although he has appeared to acknowledge having sexually harassed some workers.

“I had done some TV and stuff before, that but this was my big movie break,” Dix recalled. “I still had a decent acting career, but it was all in TV. I never really had a film career. I think my film career was massively cut short.

“I’ve had friends call after the New York Times pieces came out, some who are now really famous, who knew about it at the time, and they say: ‘This was the moment it changed for you.’”

Others believe Weinstein himself played an active role in icing them out of the industry.

Annabella Sciorra, who has accused Weinstein of violently raping her, believes he wielded his power to cloud her reputation.

“From 1992, I didn’t work again until 1995,” she told the New Yorker. “I just kept getting this pushback of ‘We heard you were difficult; we heard this or that.’ I think that that was the Harvey machine.”

Her friend, the actor Rosie Perez, recalled urging her to go to the police. “She said, ‘I can’t go to the police. He’s destroying my career.’ ”

The Hollywood producer was a storied bully and media manipulator.

Darryl Hannah claims there were “instant repercussions” for resisting his advances. The Miramax plane left without her at an international premiere of Kill Bill 2, and her flights, stylists and accommodations were cancelled for another.

“I thought that was the repercussion, you know, the backlash,” Hannah said.

“This fear of losing your career is not losing your ticket to a borrowed dress and earrings someone paid you to wear,” said the actor Ellen Barkin. “It’s losing your ability to support yourself, to support your family, and this is fucking real whether you are the biggest movie star or the lowest-pay-grade assistant.”

Emmy and Golden Globe-winner Jane Seymour was a young actor when she rejected the propositions of “the most powerful man in Hollywood at that time”.

Seymour said the man, who she did not name, threatened to blacklist her if she ever repeated the details of their encounter.

“You’ll never work ever again anywhere on the planet,” Seymour said he told her. She called the incident “devastating” and said it caused her to drop out of acting for at least a year, and almost permanently.

The production company assistant

Weinstein Company assistants also say they came in for abuse that forced them to leave the industry.

Emily Nestor was a law school graduate and business school student when she considered turning a temporary position at the Weinstein Company into a career in movies.

Then Weinstein began to relentlessly proposition her, she says.

“I was definitely traumatized for a while, in terms of feeling so harassed and frightened,” Nestor said. “It made me feel incredibly discouraged that this could be something that happens on a regular basis. I actually decided not to go into entertainment because of this incident.”

The comedians

Louis CK was one of the most revered names in comedy, and so was his agent.

That proved to be a career obstacle for comedians Dana Min Goodman and Julia Wolov, who claim that the comedian exposed himself to them and then grew angry when they told friends in the comedy world about his behavior. 

Whenever they saw Louis CK’s agent, Dave Becky, attached to a project – and there were many times – they didn’t even bother to put themselves in the running.

We know immediately that we can never even submit our material,” Wolov told the Times.

Louis CK has said the sexual allegations against him are true. “Know I never threatened anyone,” Becky has said.

Abby Schachner said she was deeply discouraged when she called Louis CK to invite him to a show and he masturbated while on the phone. She said the incident was one of the factors that pushed her out of comedy. Today, she illustrates children’s books.

“I can’t even make a phone call, how am I going to pursue this as a career?” Schachner thought to herself at the time, she told the Guardian. “It knocks your confidence away … If you honestly feel no confidence, it’s better to hide.”

 

Molly Redden is a senior reporter focusing on gender equality. She previously reported for Mother Jones, the New Republic and the Chronicle of Higher Education. Follow her on Twitter: @mtredden

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