You DARE Speak Up to Power?


For 20 years, Ashley Judd’s allegations against an unnamed movie producer were going nowhere. As long as his identity was an open secret, it was like Hollywood – unreal.

On October 5th, BAM!

New York Times’ screaming headlines Harvey Weinstein Paid Off Sexual Harassment Accusers for Decades made it real.

Women in entertainment felt validated. The outing of Harvey Weinstein confirmed that the industry’s acceptance of sexual coercion and pushing women beyond their safe boundaries was wrong. No more, this is the way the movie business is, Sweetheart.

Ashley Judd and Lauren O’Connor have given women a little more confidence to say NO. I say “little” because our psyche to obey for survival is deep. It takes many Susan Fowlers and Ashley Judds throughout the world for us to understand self empowerment.

From unquestioningly obeying our parents and teachers as children, we grow up to join workplaces with dominating bosses who can bully and humiliate us. When we complain to peers, we are told, this is the way it is. I call this workplace gaslighting. Abuse of another human is never acceptable, in any industry.

When we collectively obey another, we give them power over us. It takes a very brave person to step away and call out the behaviour for what it is.

Harvey Weinstein wielded great power over the women he harassed. He could give them big roles or cast them into the wilderness, left to wait on tables. Who would dare name him openly?

Power dynamics plays a huge role in harassment and other forms of wrongdoing.

Image from the New York Times

Power dynamics determine whether:

  • You dare speak up 
  • People believe you
  • Action is taken 

In Weinstein’s case, each woman was painfully aware that even if she did speak up, nothing would change. Not until the tide began to turn as they watched other powerful men fall due to sexual harassment.

Dare You Speak Up?

If a person has power over something you want, you don’t speak up.

Dave McClure of 500 Startups had power over whether Cheryl Yeoh (pictured) and other women would get the funding they needed. Cheryl did not speak up when Dave McClure sexually assaulted her. The deal was too important for the government incubator programme she was leading.

When some Malaysian male human rights lawyers derided a lawyers’ women empowerment conference as sexist, women’s NGOs dared not speak back as they relied on them for pro bono cases.

My friend, Elaine, told me recently of an incident in a park.

“I overheard a cop responding to a young female fruit seller (when she asked which fruit he wanted). “K alau boleh, abang nak cium aje!!” (If I could, I just want to kiss you) To top it off with a perverted look. Disgusting!”

Neither Elaine nor the fruit seller could say anything. The police officer could have confiscated her stall. It was better to stay silent. Can you imagine how many sexist remarks a young female street vendor puts up with everyday in silence so as not to upset her customers?

Notice something? These are all women harassed by men. I’ve been accused, by men as being one sided. So I’m going to point out something very important here. This is about power. For millennia, men have had power over women. This is only recently shifting. For as long as we buy into “obey your husband” and “stand by your man”, in a world where men hold power in politics and business, this imbalance will remain.

Of course men are harassed. Even the police. The FBI head could not tell the President directly that he was interfering in investigations. James Comey was sacked anyway.

You Speak but no one Believes You

What is worse than being violated? That no one will hear you, you are not believed. Just watch Liar and see how angry English teacher Joanne Froggatt gets, because no one, not even the viewers, will believe that handsome nice surgeon, Ioan Gruffudd could rape her.

Because humans are wired for survival, people you inform would rather question you than act on the unsettling belief that you could be right. You see this in religious institutions, sports, academies – where priests, coaches, teachers have power over their young students. For the longest time, parents would believe priests rather than their molested young sons. I know a woman whose younger sister was molested by her uncle when they were small. The older sister told her mother who yelled at her for lying.

The denial is deep. BBC in The Gap Year Paedophile shows how church leaders could not accept that Richard Huckle had groomed and raped young children under their care. Richard Huckle was convicted of 71 offences including rape against children as young as 6 months old.

“The thing about this story is, the whole city was complicit. It wasn’t just the police and church: it was police, church, legislative branch, the Globe. Everybody at some point looked the other way.”

Mark Ruffalo who played Boston Globe reporter, Mike Rezendes in Spotlight

Try telling the Human Resources department that the CEO sexually harassed you. They are helpless but can’t admit that. Easier to grill you or advise that you work far away from him rather than do their job. HR want to keep their jobs too. I’ve seen an ineptly handled case that has dragged on for months, by which time it’s risen to the level of an open secret. There is a part of me that wishes she goes to the media for it to become real. 

Except that the media is beholden to power too.

When the Media Buries Stories

The New York Times tells of the complicity of the media in not covering the Weinstein story, after all who wanted to upset Weinstein?

“But until now, no journalistic outfit had been able, or perhaps willing, to nail the details and hit publish.”

Jim Rutenberg, New York Times

Is it any wonder that some feel pushed to tell their stories on social media? Susan Fowler and Cheryl Yeoh did exactly that. Once their blogs went viral, they got media attention.

Cristina Balan (pictured), an ex Tesla engineer has told me her frustration in getting her stories out about Tesla and instead publishes them on her blog. Elon Musk has become such a charismatic personality. Very few media outlets, other than The Guardian and The Wall Street Journal seem to publish the deeper problems at Tesla.

To be fair, some journalists are willing to publish but their sources back out.

Ms. Masters [Kim Masters of The Hollywood Reporter] had been chasing the Weinstein story for years. She said she had gotten near “the end zone” once, only to bump up against the ultimate silencer: fear.

“At the last minute, the source withdrew,” she told me.

Jim Rutenberg, New York Times

We need a combination of brave “whistleblowers”, journalists and media owners for stories to break and action to happen. Following a media expose, comes the public outcry and more victims emerge.

This forces authorities to act: the police against Bill Cosby, royal inquiries; and the companies. BBC, Fox, Uber. Fox News fired its top news host Bill O’Reilly and Uber’s CEO Travis Kalanick was forced to resign. Fox News was losing advertisers and Uber, its customers. Public pressure really makes a difference. But people need to speak up for the public to know.

The Hostile Public

The public are not always supportive and can tear whistleblowers apart.

In sharing her story with Vanity Fair, Ashley Judd said:

He physically lured me by saying, “Oh, help me pick out what I’m going to wear.” There was a lot that happened between the point of entry and the bargaining. There was this whole process of bargaining—“Come do this, come do this, come do this.” And I would say, “No, no, no.” I have a feeling if this is online and people have the opportunity to post comments, a lot of the people will say, “Why didn’t you leave the room?”, which is victim-blaming. When I kept saying no to everything, there was a huge asymmetry of power and control in that room.

Speaking up to power is frightening and the personal cost is immense. We should applaud those who do rather than tearing them apart. They need our support, even if it is something as simple as telling them on Twitter – it counters the hate tweets.

Understand why women are often silent about sexual harassment. It is time we spoke up. For the world – if no one knows, it didn’t happen.

If you want to learn more about sexual harassment at the workplace, read on.

When I gave public talks on sexual harassment this year, I received many personal stories of people sexually harassed at work. There was one common thread. HR let them down. Some were told that they couldn’t do anything without evidence. There is rarely evidence of sexual harassment. Others gave the perpetrators a little chat which undermined the seriousness of the harassment.

I am interviewed by Tasha Fusil of BFM on Knowing Your Rights on Sexual Harassment at the Workplace

When the allegation is against the big boss, HR’s hands are tied. There needs to be a bypass when it comes to the Number 1 or any senior company executive. Go straight to the Board. Report to the independent hotline. The Board cannot then ask HR to investigate (this happens!) but should appoint external specialists. I know of companies that won’t do this because of the expense.

These are questions I commonly receive.

Question 1: What do you do if you have been harassed by someone who holds power over you?

  1. Write it down or record it. As soon as it happens, record yourself on the phone describing what happened or e-mail someone you trust with details – very detailed – of what just happened. This gives a timestamp and contemporaneous evidence is stronger than you trying to recall it later.
  2. Tell someone close to you. You will need the emotional support when it gets tough because it will get tough. You might be questioned over and over – by HR, by investigators, by the media, by lawyers… It gets exhausting. You need that person who believes in you even if the rest of the world doesn’t.
  3. Tell someone who can help. This could be a lawyer, a person with Human Resources in your company, a welfare officer – someone. You need someone very familiar with harassment and is able to advise you objectively.
  4. Make a police report if your harassment has crossed the criminal threshold. For example, you were physically assaulted or you received “dick pics”. It does not matter if you don’t have evidence. It is for the police to investigate. Note that the moment you do this, the matter is public. You need to ask yourself: are you prepared for the consequences of this powerful person now knowing that you have lodged a report? Seek legal advice in doing this.
  5. Find out if others have been harassed. Sexual harassment is rarely a one off. A powerful person would have started far back. Tackle this discretely as many will still be in fear of speaking up. All it takes is for that one brave soul to speak up and others will follow.

Discrimination and whistleblower lawyer Eric Bachman advises safety in numbers. Kelly Ellis sued Google for gender discrimination once she had two others as joint plaintiffs.

Question 2: What if someone tells you they have been harassed by a person in power?

  1. Believe them. People don’t make up stories like this. They’d be crazy to lie against a powerful person who has an army of lawyers and media people who can make life a living hell. Listen to their story and don’t ask questions which suggest you might have doubts. It can feel very isolating to be disbelieved and not validated.
  2. Give them support. They need emotional support and many do need therapy. People who have been harassed can suffer anxiety attacks and I know a few with PTSD. They also need to understand their legal rights and have advocates who will stand by them.
  3. If you are able to advise, do so. If you don’t know what to do, ask someone who can help.


Title Image of Harvey Weinstein courtesy of US Magazine.

By Animah Kosai

I am a Speak Up Advocate and Coach, formerly a lawyer in the Oil and Gas industry. I give awareness talks, facilitate organisations and coach leaders and groups on speaking up, learning how to create an open culture and reflecting on organisational values against reality. My focus: Ethics, Harassment, Wrongdoing and Safety.

Follow me on LinkedINFacebook and Twitter to get insights into various corporate scandals and Speaking Up.

If you have any concerns about sexual harassment or harassment, you may contact me on LinkedIn, message the Facebook page or write to me directly at