“It’s Like A Petri Dish Festering”: Women In Hollywood On How To Fix Culture Of Abuse

We asked four industry power players what needs to change in Hollywood to end the rampant sexual harassment and abuse problem. Here’s what they said.

“It’s Like A Petri Dish Festering”: Women In Hollywood On How To Fix Culture Of Abuse
[Illustration: Fanatic Studio/Getty Images]

As the sexual harassment scandals shake up Hollywood, most of the focus so far has been on rooting out perpetrators and establishing the scale and depth of the abuse—a process that is far from over. But increasingly, members of the entertainment industry are trying to look forward, beyond the ugly details of the scandals, to come up with solutions to, if not completely eradicate the problem of abuse, at least create a culture that will make it harder for predators to thrive. We asked four prominent women in the entertainment industry to offer three changes that are necessary to create a better, safer work environment.


Cathy Schulman [Photo: Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images]
Cathy Schulman, producer (Crash, The Illusionist), president and CEO of Welle Entertainment, president of Women in Film

1. Put More Women In Management Positions

“To me, it really comes down to the overall issue of gender discrimination in Hollywood, which has had a long hold on the business. And until we really change the system from the top down, in terms of equalling out board tables and making them equally representative of both genders, and making sure that decision-making tables are balanced, it’s hard to create a culture of understanding between men and women. Traditionally, the workplace in general, and Hollywood specifically, has been a male workplace, and therefore male ideas ran the day. Not until women are more involved in how these companies are managed and how decisions are made will the men who are biased be able to understand the way women think, what they contribute to the business, and appreciate what they’re capable of.”

2. Stop Tolerating Bad Behavior From Talent

“We’ve had a long, long culture and history of accepting that talent comes with eccentricities. These are all different kinds of eccentricities. ‘He only eats apples’ and ‘She only wants spinach for lunch’ and ‘He doesn’t come out of his trailer unless a sun god blesses it’ or whatever; ‘he throws staples at people’s heads.’ Every crazy thing. And to me, that’s because Hollywood is a culture that says [to the less powerful], ‘You’re so replaceable. Everyone wants to be in the movie business, so if you don’t want to do this, you’re replaceable.’ Which goes along with ‘Talent is crazy. And you have to deal with their craziness.’ We have to be less allowing of poor behavior in the name of talent. That’s just got to be rooted out. You don’t get to act like a complete and utter jerk or masturbate in front of someone or ask for a blowjob simply because you’re famous.”

3. Make The Punishment Of Offenders Real

“The way harassment has been handled in the past is that offenders are asked to leave and go quiet. They’re asked to get help, go get counseling and rethink the way that they’re behaving and then come back when they’re ready to behave. I think history has shown us that zebras don’t often change their stripes. It’s not that I don’t understand the notion of forgiveness, but I do think the idea that a person goes away under the cover of night and is hidden away until they’re supposedly cured and then they can come back and get a bigger and better job—I don’t think that’s okay at all. I don’t think that people will stop behaving this way until they see that behaving this way is a career wrecker—it does make you lose your job, and it’s a serious, serious situation. In the case of a crime, you don’t get to come back.”

Courtney Kemp [Photo: Maarten de Boer/Getty Images]
Courtney Kemp, executive producer, Starz’s Powerproducer (Hawaii Five-0, The Good Wife)

1. Encourage Men To Speak Up

“Non-abusive men need to speak up. For every one guy—or woman, frankly— [who is abusive], there’s a bunch of dudes who are not like that at all. I think we forget about them really quickly. Those guys need to speak up. They need to become part of the solution and not be bystanders. They need to stand up. It’s akin to people saying, ‘I care about this issue because I have a daughter or I have a sister.’ No! Care about it because we’re humans! And we care about the oppression of other human beings. I think there’s an oppression, too, for men like this who want other men to co-sign their behavior. That’s what you see with Louis C.K. and Dave Becky [C.K.’s former manager] because Dave Becky’s apology, he said, ‘I was part of the problem.’ He wasn’t the perpetrator but he said he was part of the problem. People who are non-abusive need to say, ‘Nope! I don’t want to be part of this, man.'”


2. Eradicate The Overall Culture of Professional Abuse

Kemp believes that sexual abuse is part of a larger culture of abuse in Hollywood, where terrible workplace behavior is often given a pass in the entertainment business because of a longstanding perception that it simply goes with the territory. The 1994 film Swimming with Sharks satirized this notion, with none other than Kevin Spacey (who is now facing numerous sexual harassment allegations) playing a studio executive who abuses his new assistant with tirades and cruel psychological games.

“I think when we say ‘sexual harassment,’ what’s difficult about that phrase is that it becomes about sex. Which is not always what it is. This is about power and abuse. It’s really about, I can make you do what I want you to do because I can. And I can hurt your career if you don’t do what I say. A lot of times it’s abuse in a professional setting—the culture of abuse is the culture. If you’ve seen Swimming with Sharks, that wasn’t a sexual situation, but those are the situations we’re talking about. Sometimes it is about sex. But what it really is is this helplessness you feel because what you want is this career. You want this career so badly that you are trapped.”

3. Stop Punishing Those Who Delay Reporting Abuse

“We should detach the stigma from late reporting. When you say [that you were harassed or abused] doesn’t affect the veracity of what you’re saying. Our culture in America has been ‘innocent until proven guilty.’ So when someone accuses someone of something, our national knee-jerk response is: Prove it. And in many of these cases, the victims have participated in their own cover-up of what happened. So there are questions of, Why did you not come forward sooner? Why did you not tell anyone? Why is this the first time we’re hearing of this? Those questions all belong to this weird idea of if you don’t tell the truth when it happened, you must be lying. Coming forward has a negativity attached to it. Some people make bargains with themselves. They do the math about their career and say, I can just walk through this and it could be better on the other side. They shouldn’t be punished for making that bargain.”

Lori McCreary [Photo: Gabriel Olsen/Getty Images for AARP]
Lori McCreary, producer (Invictus, Madam Secretary), co-founder/CEO of Revelations Entertainment

1. Define The Less Obvious Cases Of Sexual Abuse

“I think what’s difficult is that there’s sexual abuse that we can all agree what it is: ongoing harassment, serial predation. We know those are things that we need to deal with, and maybe even need to deal with legally. But then there’s something in-between. What if someone made a really bad pass? Those things also need to be addressed in the workplace. Because in a workplace, when there’s an imbalance of power between anyone, not just men and women, any kind of sexual advance can be very hostile to the person on the receiving end. Whether the intent is there or not, we need to understand it.”

2. Talk About Sexual Harassment Outside Of Training Seminars

At CBS, which airs the series that McCreary produces, Madam Secretary, anti-sexual harassment training is required. But McCreary believes that the discussions that follow the training are just as important.


“There need to be conversions that happen afterward because it gets down to the very definition of what does sexual harassment mean? What do you need to ask permission to do? A lot of it comes down the person that you’re in contact with and whether you’re in a power position and they’re a subordinate. The personality of the person you’re speaking to also matters. All of us who are sitting in a room and are going to work together for the next nine months [on a project] need to listen to the same conversation and discuss it afterward.”

3. Hire More Gender-Balanced Production Teams

“Producers are in a unique position because we impact the make-up of the entire team and culture of the production. So as producers, and especially female producers, we can make an impact. I think the more women we hire as heads of departments, and the more PA’s we can hire that are female, the more we can help. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to how to fix this tomorrow. But I think if we all stop and think about it before we hire our crews, our directors, work with our writers: Am I making a workplace that looks like our audience, which is very diverse? Then I think it’s going to be great. We’ll probably get more storytelling that we haven’t heard and we’ll figure out how better to do things on set because we’ll be a more diverse group of people.”

Laura Lewis [Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images for The Weinstein Company]
Laura Lewis, former CAA agent and producer

1. Give More Women Green-Light Power

“We need more women in charge of capital decisions. That, to me, is green-light power. I know a number of women that are heads of production but their green-light person is still a man. And they still struggle with getting female-driven content through. And that portrayal of women in content is what creates this sexist society. It’s both TV and film. It’s who controls the studios, who controls the networks, because those jobs are about capital and access to capital—who has it and who doesn’t. So if you have more women in charge of capital, that bleeds into what goes into the content, which affects how the world sees women, how they treat women.”

2. Get More Women In The Room

“I’ve noticed that within many of the companies that I’ve worked, I’ve looked around the room and I was one of two women. And you hear the off-color jokes, the little things that start to lay the groundwork for the bigger things. It festers. It’s like a petri dish festering these cultures that make it ok [for sexual harassment to occur]. It’s the same in tech, the same in finance. When I say rooms, it’s all rooms. Not only the executive suites, but the writers rooms, because it affects how people speak. If you look at the crews of films, you see they’re usually 95% men. Who’s to speak up if you feel someone is being overly sexualized because of the way they dress? Or if someone is saying something a woman would never say? All those things, if there’s no woman in the room to speak out against it, it’s going to create that culture.”

3. Hire More Female Storytellers

“We need to make a conscious decision to employ more women writers and directors. I do believe in the power of story to change cultures. And what we put on the screen matters. It matters to how boys grow up and how they see women. So if we’re going to create a systemic, generational change, our content and how we portray people in it matters. And it will affect the next generations coming up behind us. So we need to make sure we’re looking for and accessing female storytellers because they’re going to portray people in a different way, which will affect how the world sees people.”


About the author

Nicole LaPorte is an LA-based writer for Fast Company who writes about where technology and entertainment intersect. She previously was a columnist for The New York Times and a staff writer for Newsweek/The Daily Beast and Variety