Late Night Sexual Harrassment
Nell Scovell, one of a handful of women who has ever worked as a comedy writer for David Letterman — or any of the late night comic talk shows — contends that an atmosphere of sexual harassment routinely exists on those shows:
Without naming names or digging up decades-old dirt, let’s address the pertinent questions. Did Dave hit on me? No. Did he pay me enough extra attention that it was noted by another writer? Yes. Was I aware of rumors that Dave was having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Was I aware that other high-level male employees were having sexual relationships with female staffers? Yes. Did these female staffers have access to information and wield power disproportionate to their job titles? Yes. Did that create a hostile work environment? Yes. Did I believe these female staffers were benefiting professionally from their personal relationships? Yes. Did that make me feel demeaned? Completely. Did I say anything at the time? Sadly, no.
Here’s what I did: I walked away from my dream job. The show picked up my option after 13 weeks; then, about two months later, while looking for a nicer apartment, I realized I didn’t want to commit to a yearlong lease. I’d seen enough to know that I was not going to thrive professionally in that workplace. And although there were various reasons for that, sexual politics did play a major part.
As Rachel Sklar points out, Scovell isn’t some unsuccessful woman blaming her woes on her sex: “She created the TV series Sabrina, the Teenage Witch and has written for Coach, Murphy Brown, Monk, N.C.I.S., Charmed, The Critic, The Simpsons and Newhart. And Late Night with David Letterman.” Indeed, as Scovell notes in her piece, she was the story editor for Newhart when she was hired to write for Dave.
But here’s the thing: I don’t know what you do about it.
Letterman controls these people’s careers, so for him to have sexual relations with them is problematic and opens him and his company up for lawsuits. Sexuality creates incredible tension and problems in a workplace. Ideally, then, we would just treat each other as colleagues rather than as potential romantic partners. But people like this spend an inordinate amount of time at work and attraction does happen. Supervisors and subordinates not only become sexually intimate but fall and love and build lives together. It happens all the time.
In larger offices, this is reasonably easy to fix. People can move laterally to avoid senior-subordinate relationships. But in a small team like a 14-person comedy show staff?
Scovell’s solution is to hire more women. She reports that there are currently zero women working on any of the major shows (Letterman, Leno, and O’Brien — no mention of Colbert and Stewart). But, as a practical matter, having zero women markedly reduces the chance of sexual harassment! With more women on the staff — something that otherwise seems a no-brainer given the number of women in the audience — there’s more chance for relationships to form and resentments to foster.
So, there’s the law, human decency, and the way things ought to be. But there’s also human nature and the power of romantic and/or sexual attraction. These things often conflict.