In the days since one of the country’s most powerful PR firms on the left disintegrated amid allegations that its founder, Trevor FitzGibbon, had sexually harassed and assaulted employees and clients alike, many progressives have been scratching their heads and looking inward. How could someone so enmeshed in the movement—whose clients included the AFL-CIO and MoveOn, and even feminist groups NARAL Pro-choice and UltraViolet—himself be such a sexist abuser, as many women are now claiming?
But the news shouldn’t be surprising, even at a progressive organization. It’s only the latest sign that, while it’s technically illegal, sexual harassment still permeates the workplace—regardless of its ideology.
The Civil Rights Act, passed in 1964, laid the groundwork for outlawing sexual harassment, and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the nation’s watchdog for people’s workplace rights, incorporated protection from sexual harassment into its regulations in 1980, making it officially illegal. Most Americans only became acquainted with the fact that harassment is against the law when Anita Hill testified against Clarence Thomas’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1991. Still, it’s been the law of the land for decades.
Yet, even now, women are regularly victimized by harassers at work. One recent survey of several thousand women by Cosmopolitan magazine found that a third had been sexually harassed at work at some point in their careers. Other polls regularly uncover similar figures; one from 2011 found that a quarter of women had experienced workplace sexual harassment, while another from 2013 found that one in five women had been harassed by a superior and a quarter had been harassed by a coworker.
Even so, most women don’t come forward the way those at FitzGibbon did. In the Cosmo survey, nearly three-quarters of the women who had been harassed didn’t report it. The 2013 survey similarly found that more than two-thirds said nothing.
That’s very likely because they know the kinds of costs they could incur and the forces they’d be up against. The price can be both direct and indirect. Bringing a lawsuit often requires shelling out money for a lawyer, money you won’t necessarily recoup if things don’t fall in your favor. But even before that step, there’s the potential professional cost of lobbing an accusation at someone in your field—someone you might rely on for employment and a paycheck, or even just a good reputation in your industry.
The women—and men—of FitzGibbon Media have definitely learned this, if they didn’t already know the risks. The firm no longer exists because FitzGibbon himself pulled the plug. And while there is talk of opening a new firm without him and helping the staff all get jobs, it shows how real the threat to a career can be.