Commentary Violence

Allegations of Workplace Sexual Harassment at FitzGibbon Media: We’ve Seen This Movie Too Many Times Before

Jodi Jacobson

When allegations of sexual assault or harassment are levied against a prominent man many people look the other way. And knowing that those who would otherwise hold an abuser accountable will indeed look the other way, victims are less likely to stand up for themselves in the first place, especially when their income and health-care benefits are on the line.

Last week, the widely respected progressive consulting firm FitzGibbon Media abruptly closed its doors after allegations surfaced of sexual harassment and abuse of numerous women by Trevor FitzGibbon, founder and owner of the firm.

The final straw came when, at a recent staff retreat in Austin, Texas, FitzGibbon allegedly propositioned Sierra Pedraja, who had applied for a job with the company. Pedraja reported the incident to other FitzGibbon Media staffers, prompting revelations by numerous employees and clients of creepy behavior, harassment, and assault allegedly perpetrated by FitzGibbon. (Full disclosure: Rewire was for a brief time a client of FitzGibbon Media, but did not work directly with Trevor.) FitzGibbon is accused of sexually harassing a number of women and sexually assaulting at least two others, all while running a firm with clients such as UltraViolet and NARAL Pro-Choice America, both of which work to advance women’s rights. The women on staff reportedly were too afraid for their jobs or too intimated by FitzGibbon’s professional reputation in the progressive community to speak up.

We now know that Trevor FitzGibbon’s reputation should have included “serial harasser.” It turns out he was also accused of sexually harassing some of his colleagues in a previous position at another well-known and otherwise well-regarded firm.

How can a guy known for this kind of reported abuse go from one place to another and not suffer consequences? And why are the victims of such harassment often so reluctant to report it?

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To a large degree, the answers to both questions are the same: When allegations of sexual assault or harassment are levied against a prominent man, many people look the other way. And knowing that those who would otherwise hold an abuser accountable will indeed look the other way, victims are less likely to stand up for themselves in the first place, especially when, among other things, their income and health-care benefits are on the line.

Too often, in my personal experience, victims of harassment or assault feel that they are largely invisible, and abusers are made to appear invincible. In many organizations, charismatic leaders hold the power and the purse strings, leaving staff vulnerable to abuse. And our society’s tendency to lionize specific individuals gives them an aura of being invincible, especially when they are a widely celebrated in a specific field or community. The degree of invisibility versus invincibility seems to me inversely related to the height of the pedestal on which certain leaders—or entertainers, athletes, politicians—are put. The more power the perpetrator has, the less likely the victim is to come forward. It’s at once obvious and can’t be overstated.

The first time I can remember someone touching me inappropriately was in religious school. I was 11 years old and the clergyman who ran our school was in his late 60s. He seemed nice and caring. But he also constantly rubbed my back, shoulders, and back of my bra. I hated it. But I was 11, somehow I felt ashamed, and I never thought of telling anyone. I came from what can only be called a dysfunctional family. I didn’t know what was normal and what was not. I just tried to stay out of the way and not be alone with him because he always got too close.

The second time was at summer camp, when the 70-something director, widely respected by parents, did much the same thing, regularly, to female campers. He’d come through the dining hall, circling the girls’ tables, touching us, rubbing our shoulders and our bra straps. We all hated it. But we were told by counselors to just to get over it. “Oh, that’s just Tex,” they’d say. “He doesn’t mean anything by it. He’s a great guy.” Translation: Don’t make waves.

The third time was at Yale University, to which I’d been accepted for grad school. During an orientation visit, I met with the professor who would have been my adviser. He suggested we grab some lunch and talk about the program, and at his direction we ended up at a small Italian restaurant nearby campus. At that point in my life, I understood immediately what was happening when he slid too close on the half-circle banquette and put his hand on my thigh under the table cloth. I moved away, putting as much distance between us as I could. I later learned he had a reputation for seeking out and having sex with students.

Rather than enrolling, that summer I gave up my space at Yale in favor of a job in D.C., yet found myself back in the same place, rhetorically speaking. I was one of two young women on the research staff at a prominent think tank. It was the kind of place filled with ambitious young professionals who were given the chance to write and publish on important topics. The head of the organization was considered a “genius.” Reporters ate out of his hands. Celebrities and important people visited our offices. And most of the staff wanted nothing more than to be favored by the boss.

But the inappropriate behavior started right away. He would call me into his office to discuss a project, close the door, and sit way too close on the couch, pressing his leg against mine. It made me grossly uncomfortable and really, all I wanted was to do my job. I tried to express my concern early on to a vice president of the organization, a woman, but it was quickly made clear to me that “my discomfort” was my problem and I should not rock the boat.

I learned from this that you weren’t supposed to complain when he remarked on your looks, or when you were repeatedly asked to work late or come into the office on the weekend only to find yourself alone with him. You didn’t say anything when you found him first standing in the doorway of your small office, then coming in and closing the door behind “just to discuss the findings in your paper.” You did what you could to keep it completely professional, and then said you had to use the restroom, or someone was waiting for you, or you really needed to get home for some reason, any reason, so you could get out of there. You didn’t react when people talked about all the women in the field with whom he’d had affairs. You were told you lacked a sense of humor when you couldn’t laugh it off. And when it finally became too much, you left.

I left knowing that no matter how renowned, smart, well-regarded, or successful a person is, he or she can still use the power of their position to abuse someone else, to make a staff person uncomfortable or worse, and then make it look as though the employee was the real problem. I also learned that the more widely heralded the abuser, the harder it is to expose the abuse because there is a sort of protective shield that surrounds such prominent people, created by the board members, funders, colleagues, or others invested in the reputation of that particular leader by virtue of their own proximity to or investment in genius or celebrity. The protective layer surrounding “invincible” people also invariably includes other leaders in the same community from whom you might later seek a job, but by then you’re already labeled a troublemaker.

From what little I know, the story of what reportedly happened at FitzGibbon Media tracks closely with my experiences: Women (and in this case at least it was women) working in a widely lauded firm on issues about which they care deeply suddenly found themselves put in uncomfortable and degrading positions of having to fend off the boss or another superior. And they knew or at least felt speaking up would get them nowhere but unemployed.

In this case, history suggests there’s a good reason for FitzGibbon employees to be skeptical of confronting him.

That’s because FitzGibbon had been “disciplined” for predatory behavior while at Fenton Communications, another well-known media firm that bills itself as “social change communications.”

As Amanda Terkel, Ryan Grim, and Sam Stein wrote at the Huffington Post:

During his prior employment at Fenton Communications, a major PR firm, a female colleague accused him of sexual harassment, Bill Werde, Fenton’s current CEO, confirmed to The Huffington Post on Thursday night.

“The firm immediately investigated the claims and brought in a nationally recognized workplace expert to conduct a day long training with all employees in the Washington office, focused on preventing and handling any incidences of sexual harassment,” Werde said in a statement. “Employees were also offered follow-up consultations with the expert.”

At the time of that complaint, FitzGibbon was a senior staffer, according to a source who worked with him. He was disciplined, the source said, but not fired. After the accusation and the firm’s investigation, other female employees came forward with similar harassment complaints. Fenton’s leadership closely monitored FitzGibbon’s behavior, Werde said. And for the remaining years of his tenure, which ended in 2008, Werde said that “no other complaints were brought to the company’s attention.”

An “expert” was brought in who apparently did not recommend removing the abuser from the place of his abuse? Fenton’s leadership “closely monitored” FitzGibbon’s behavior? Really?

Here is how that translates for me. Someone who was allegedly harassing and exhibiting at least abusive behavior toward several female employees was “disciplined” but retained his position in the firm, presumably including his pay, benefits, retirement accounts, vacation, and sick leave. He went on sabbatical and later returned to work, likely in close proximity to the women he’d harassed. Fenton’s Werde notes that “for the remaining years of his term, no complaints were brought to the company’s attention.” To which I feel like the appropriate response is “Duh.” Why would anyone bring anything to the attention of the same largely white male leadership that basically gave a pass to a guy who serially harassed several female employees because he was apparently too valuable to lose?

In situations where these conditions flourish, people facing abuse are not going to come forward, especially not when the abuser is apparently or ostensibly so irreplaceable that the health, well-being, and security of the people who support that work are secondary considerations if they are considered at all, or when the admission of abuse becomes an obstacle to the reputation of the firm.

The stark reality of what happens to staff in these situations is being played out today.

“Junior staffers are living paycheck to paycheck,” Ginny Simmons, former vice president, digital, at FitzGibbon Media told Rewire. “And the last one will be Dec 31. We didn’t get the bonuses that were owed to us and many were planning for. We got no severance. No advance notice.”

“Our healthcare ends Jan 31,” she continued. “One staffer is 6 months pregnant with twins. She is very worried about getting a new job at this point. We have two staffers who are recent cancer survivors who are about to lose their health insurance.”

“Nothing is OK about anything that has happened,” Simmons concluded. To help out, allies have set up a fund for the former employees as they attempt to find new work.

The progressive community is about social change. Too often, though, that change is envisioned as creating a world that does not apply to what happens in the domain of those in power. “The world,” however, does indeed include what happens on your watch and under your proverbial roof. The people who work with and for you are not any different—no less deserving of fair pay, equal rights, health-care benefits, family leave, or protection from harassment, abuse, and violence—than are the populations for which your clients pay you to advocate.

And yet, there are too many stories even in the progressive community of egregious behavior we would not accept elsewhere.

Sometimes it feels like nothing will ever change. I don’t have the answers to whether and how it will. I would like not to feel that things I experienced years ago are still happening to people today, at least not within the community that in principle ostensibly stands against violence and harassment of all kinds. And yet here we are.

Still, I am very cautiously optimistic. There is, right now, a lot of soul-searching going on in the progressive community and a great deal of discussion underway, some of it appropriately angry, hurt, and disappointed. Individuals and groups are grappling with what it takes first to stop abuse from happening, and to ensure that no victim of abuse is made invisible or feels they have nowhere to go.

These are as yet just conversations, so caution is warranted. But it is past time for all individuals, groups, and leaders in the progressive community to ask ourselves: What does it mean to be progressive? Are we as progressive inside as we strive to be outside? What is needed to ensure all employees entering new jobs find a welcoming environment; that all employees know their rights and have mechanisms to exercise them; and that every employee is “visible,” while no one is seen as “invincible?”

There are no easy answers to any of this. Instead, it will take hard work and constant vigilance from within and throughout our community to be the change we claim to want in the wider world. Six months from now Rewire will come back to you with a report on what has come out of this, because unless we all hold ourselves accountable, no one will be.

Culture & Conversation Law and Policy

The Modern Struggle Over Anti-Trans Bathroom Laws Has Its Roots in Decades of Title VII Fights

Jessica Mason Pieklo

Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Work, written by Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union Women’s Rights Project, goes beyond cases that helped shape workplace anti-discrimination policies. Rather, it focuses on ten key women whose own lives changed the law.

In 1966, Ida Phillips, a single mother working as a waitress, sat down at her kitchen table and wrote a letter to then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. She told him her story: Despite her qualifications, Phillips had been told by a Martin Marietta employee not to apply for an assembly-line position at one of the construction-material company’s manufacturing plant. The job would have paid more than double what she was making as a waitress. It included a pension plan and insurance, benefits unavailable in most female-dominated industries at the time (and which since have only marginally improved.) The reason Phillips was turned away? She was a woman with a preschool child.

That letter, Phillips’ subsequent lawsuit, and her Supreme Court win would help spark a civil rights revolution in the workplace—one with consequences that reverberate today.

So opens Because of Sex: One Law, Ten Cases, and Fifty Years That Changed American Women’s Lives at Workwritten by Gillian Thomas, senior staff attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Women’s Rights Project. Despite its full title, though, Because of Sex goes beyond cases that helped shape workplace anti-discrimination policies, focusing on ten key women whose own lives changed the law.

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, and national origin. And it was Phillips’ case, and the nine others profiled in the book, that would ultimately shape that law into one that, decades later, is an important tool in advancing gender and sex equality. As Thomas explained to Rewire in an interview, Title VII it is not just a foundational piece of civil rights legislation important for its historical effect on workplace equality. In the face of anti-transgender bathroom bills and statewide “religious liberties” legislation sweeping the country, it is a crucial tool for pushing equality forward.

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Thomas’ book is organized along three key themes in employment discrimination law: pregnancy-related workplace policies, gender stereotypes in the workplace, and sexual harassment. Those themes act as an inroad toward thinking more broadly about how, in Thomas’ words, we achieve “substantive equality” in the workplace. They illustrate how early fights over promotions and workplace policies that kept women out of certain jobs due to concerns of harming their potential fertility foreshadowed the legal showdowns over contraception coverage in employee health-care plans in cases like Burwell v. Hobby Lobby and Zubik v. Burwell.

“The subject matter areas that I saw [as a researcher and employment discrimination litigator] were, number one, women’s capacity for pregnancy, and then their subsequent roles as mothers, which, historically, has played a huge role in their second-class status legally,” Thomas told Rewire. “Women of color have always been seen as workers, irrespective of whether they had children, so that’s not an entirely universal stereotype. But I think it’s pretty safe to say that generally pregnancy and motherhood have proven to be enormous conflicts in terms of what equality looks like when you have these distinct differences” in how race and gender are perceived.

Take, for instance, the case of Peggy Young and the question whether an employer can refuse to make on-the-job accommodations for pregnant employees when it does so for nonpregnant employees. Young, another one of the women featured in Thomas’ book, was a United Parcel Service (UPS) “air driver” who became pregnant. When Young told her employer she was pregnant, UPS told her they couldn’t accommodate the light-lifting recommendation made by Young’s medical providers. Instead, UPS told Young, she would have to take unpaid medical leave for the remainder of her pregnancy.

In March 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against UPS, vacating the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that had supported UPS’ policy. The decision produced a new test for assessing pregnancy discrimination claims and sent Young’s case back to the lower courts for another look. Not long after the Roberts Court’s decision, UPS and Young settled the lawsuit, bringing an end to Young’s case.

The decision was a qualified win for advocates. The Roberts Court had accepted Young’s argument that UPS had no legitimate business reason for failing to accommodate her particular request, but the decision went short of ruling businesses must accommodate any pregnancy request.

But Because of Sex doesn’t stop at unpacking overt discrimination like the kind detailed in Young’s 2015 case or Phillips’ one in 1966. The book also takes a look at what the law has described as more “benevolent” kinds of discrimination. These include employment policies designed to “protect” women from endangering possible future pregnancies, such as prohibiting women employees from working jobs where they may be exposed to hazardous chemicals.

“It really all boils down to two issues that we are talking about in all these things,” Thomas explained, when discussing workplace policies that, employers have argued, were put in place to protect their female employees from potentially endangering a pregnancy. “One is [employers] ignoring hazards that apply to men and making women into baby-making machines. And number two is [employers] treating health effects or health hazards on the job as reasons for diminishing women’s opportunities, instead of arming women with information and assuming that they will make the right choice for themselves.”

This disconnect is most apparent in the case of United Automobile Workers vJohnson Controls, Inc., another case Thomas highlights in her book. In 1982, the car battery manufacturer Johnson Controls sent a memorandum to all its employees that said “[w]omen who are pregnant or who are capable of bearing children will not be placed into jobs involving lead exposure or which would expose them to lead through the exercise of job bidding, bumping, transfer or promotion rights.”

The policy amounted to a demotion for many female employees and a closed door for others.

Title VII actually permits employers, in a limited context, to have employment policies that discriminate on their face, such as policies that permit churches to only hire members of the same faith. Johnson Controls argued its policy of keeping women out of certain positions due to employer concerns of health risks to future pregnancies fit within Title VII’s narrow window for permitting explicit discrimination.

The Supreme Court would eventually rule in 1991 that Johnson Controls’ policy violated Title VII because it forced female employees to have to choose “between having a child and having a job,” thereby rejecting the argument made by Johnson Control’s that a woman’s fertility—or infertility—can in most situations be considered a bona fide occupational qualification.

As Thomas noted in her book, “It was no coincidence that fetal protection politics were most prevalent in well-paid, unionized industries from which women historically had been excluded. Indeed they had been excluded precisely because they had been deemed physically unsuited for the dirty, sometimes strenuous work.”

But “in female-dominated fields, though, fetal protection policies made no business sense; they effectively would gut the workforce. That reality apparently trumped any hypothetical harm to employees’ future pregnancies,” Thomas wrote.

In other words, these policies didn’t exist in female-dominated fields.

Johnson Controls may have helped grant women the agency to determine how and when they earned a paycheck with regard to policies targeting their potential fertility, but it hardly ended the debate around when and how employers attempt to diminish women’s opportunities related to their roles as potential mothers. This has played out in the hundreds of lawsuits over the contraception benefit, for example.

In other words, if Johnson Controls had settled the question of whether a woman’s fertility was an appropriate grounds for discrimination, we would not have Hobby Lobby.

Because of Sex draws another connection between the historical fight over Title VII and the contemporary one: How do employers adjust workplace policies around shifting gender norms, and when is it discriminatory if they don’t?

The law asks, “What are women supposed to want to do?” said Thomas in her interview with Rewire. “What work are they able to do? What work do they want to do? [Given] assumptions and stereotypes that are about their abilities, their preferences, their interests and how [they are] conforming to [those] in terms of stereotypes about what femininity is—what [are] women … supposed to look and act like?”

Gender nonconforming behavior, and the manner in which employees experience discrimination as a result of that behavior, is a key component over the debate around transgender rights. But it would take a “shrill” woman and the birth of the notion of “workplace harassment” to get us and the law there first.

By every measure, Ann Hopkins should have been made a partner in the global accounting firm Price Waterhouse. She was smart. Ambitious. Worked hard and constantly outperformed her peers. But it was those very attributes that her male partners deemed “too aggressive” or as evidence that she needed “charm school,” and ultimately used to deny her a partnership that by every objective measure she had earned.

The Supreme Court would ultimately disagree. In 1989, it ruled Hopkins should have been made a partner and that the comments relating to her demeanor amounted to improper gender stereotyping, a violation of Title VII’s sex discrimination provisions.

If Hopkins was initially shut out of workplace advancement due to her defiance of feminine stereotypes, so too are women subjected to on-the-job harassment, as Thomas draws out in Because of Sex. “Sexual harassment didn’t even have a name in 1974, but was such a prevalent force driving women out of the work force, driving them into different jobs [and] subjugating them just generally in terms of the identity as sexual objects on the job,” Thomas further explained in her interview.

1974 was the year Mechelle Vinson first hired a lawyer to represent her in a case against her boss, who was chronically sexually abusing her on the job. But at the time, courts largely wrote off those kinds of complaints as a kind of chasing-around-the-office, and not sexual harassment, or in Vinson’s case, on-the-job rape. As described by Thomas in her book, “throughout the 1970s, many courts responded to complaints about abusive bosses with a collective shrug that conveyed, ‘You can’t blame a guy for trying.'”

“Sexual harassment was such a prevalent force driving women out of the workforce, driving them into different jobs, and subjugating them just generally in terms of the identity as sexual objects on the job,” Thomas told Rewire.

That “you can’t blame a guy for trying” attitude hasn’t completely gone away as far as the federal courts are concerned. After all, in 2013 the Roberts Court in Vance v. Ball State made it even harder for employees to bring workplace harassment suits, and employees still face losing jobs for “being too cute” or having their sexuality be a perceived threat to their employer’s ability to remain professional in the workplace.

Which is why, in the fight over transgender bathroom access in 2016, Title VII should be a powerful force in defeating these latest attempts to stymie social progress. The idea that “you can’t blame a guy for trying” has morphed into “how the hell can we police gender roles if we don’t know where you pee.” That’s thanks almost entirely to the manner in which the law has wrestled with gender stereotypes under Title VII, Thomas explained.

In 2012, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the federal agency charged with enforcing workplace anti-discrimination laws, issued the landmark decision Macy v. Holder, which held that employment discrimination based on transgender status was a form of unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII. Then in 2015, it issued a ruling stating that denying employees access to restrooms consistent with their gender identity is also a violation of Title VII. Meanwhile several federal courts of appeals have ruled that Title VII protects against gender identity discrimination.

But the Roberts Court has yet to weigh in.

“I think sexual orientation in a way is the sort of a final frontier” in Title VII litigation, said Thomas. “The court seems really fixated on this idea of analogizing very precisely from Hopkins. In other words, if you look or act in a way that doesn’t conform to gender stereotypes then, OK, [the courts] can understand that’s sex discrimination,” said Thomas. “But if your identity is not conforming to stereotypes in that you, you know, are romantically attracted to someone of your sex, that is harder for [the courts] to get, even though it’s obviously the most obvious manifestation of stereotype.”

This is, in many ways, a fight that started in the workplace—one that eventually got the backing of the Obama administration before becoming a flashpoint of conservative election-cycle politics. Thomas’ book doesn’t close on a prediction of what the next big Title VII fight will be per se, but it is impossible to finish it and not see the narrative threads of the historical fight for workplace equality woven throughout the the contemporary one. Sex. Gender. How the law understands and navigates the two. All this is what makes Thomas’ Because of Sex the closest thing to an assigned reading I can make.

Culture & Conversation Media

The #MoreThanMean Video Highlights the Abuse Women in Sports Media Have Faced for Decades

Shireen Ahmed

Much of the discussion has been around how shocked the men in the video seem to be at the violently misogynistic tweets, and how shocked its male viewers have been.

Last week, the team at the “podcast and web community” Just Not Sports shared a new video project. The video, titled “#MoreThanMean: Women in Sports ‘Face’ Harassment,” featured two notable sportswriters, Julie DiCaro and Sarah Spain, who sat across from men who read “mean tweets” to them.

The tweets began in an almost comical yet rude manner—”I’d like to start a petition for a ban on all links to Julie DiCaro’s Twitter feed”; “Sarah Spain sounds like a nagging wife on TV today”—but they escalated quickly into violent misogyny, including messages of sexual assault. These messages had been sent directly to the women, and they had seen them. The tweet-readers had not. The video shows the men shifting uncomfortably in their seats as they are expected to vocalize these horrific remarks. Meanwhile, DiCaro and Spain remain very dignified and calm.

Within one day, the video had reached upwards of one million views; it now it stands at over three million. The #MoreThanMean project filled social media timelines and headlines, including international outlets. It has ignited discussions on the radio, news shows, and feminist websites. Fellow women sportswriters wrote about their own experiences and how we were affected by this video. I did. Spain wrote about what the experience meant to her, as did DiCaro.

Much of the response, however, has also been around how shocked the men in the video seem to be, and how shocked its male viewers have been. Men have said they were horrified to read and hear these tweets, effectively centering their own reactions in the conversation. This, too, is problematic: This video may have highlighted the abuse DiCaro and Spain receive through the internet, but women in sports media have faced this kind of harassment for decades. Disbelief and horror are not enough; it will take real, systemic change from the industry, social media companies, and these “shocked” fans to work against this kind of incessant abuse.

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In 1990, Lisa Olson, a former journalist at the Boston Herald, endured what she called “premeditated mind rape” when she attempted to interview the New England Patriots football team after a game. She settled with the team owner and the players were fined. More than 25 years later, prominent sports journalist Erin Andrews was awarded $55 million in a lawsuit against a hotel that failed to protect her privacy from a man who videotaped her while she was naked in her room. He leaked the video to the internet. Both journalists were unmistakably targeted because they are women.

In the case of online trolls, however, the problem is more complicated: Comments, emails, or tweets can be issued by people who do not use their real names and might not be identified. The waters become murky. One of the only ways to fight them is to block them, mute them, or as often suggested, disengage, phrased as “not feeding the trolls.”

Some women, DiCaro among them, argue against not engaging because they feel it is tantamount to being silenced. Each woman might have different ways of processing and handling the situation; it’s unfair to expect that all women should simply not reply or defend their work. People who attack women constantly are trying to derail our work and conversations—and the voices of women are important for adding nuance and perspective in a field that is already predominantly male.

For that matter, it may not work. As DiCaro explained for Chicago Magazine, “There are these guys who feel you’re a fake, a phony, a fraud, and you’re in a position you don’t deserve to be in, and you’re receiving attention you don’t deserve. Their mission is to take you down. Those are the trolls you can’t ignore. They don’t go away.”

And logging off—leaving Twitter and other forms of social media—is not a plausible course of action. As a sportswriter, I feel it is essential to be on Twitter. Social media is a tool to collect information quickly, and connect with readers and fans about events in the world of sports. In other words, being on social media is an essential part of our jobs.

This is where it becomes crucial for social media companies to step up and enact policies that can prevent this type of abuse from happening. DiCaro thinks social media—Twitter specifically—should wield greater responsibility in order to create a safer space for women online. “I blocked guys, but they would just create new accounts or find other ways to get around being blocked,” she said to me over email. “And Twitter didn’t really do anything about reported tweets unless they were rape or death threats. Anything else seemed to be tolerable to them, and that was really shocking to me.”

Twitter updated its Abuse Policy in December 2015 to crack down on “hateful conduct.” But DiCaro was so frustrated about constant harassment that she created a new handle at the end of March, @ZeroSafety, where she shares screencaps of harassment in order to urge Twitter to take these tweets seriously and further amend their policies to suspend abusive accounts. At one point, ironically, the account itself was suspended for using an avatar that was considered branded.

Female sportswriters will tell you that their work and their social media profiles are real life. It is not always possible to divorce one’s personal life from what they put out on their Twitter feed. A constant deluge of horrific comments can’t be ignored or simply waded through—particularly when the comments might wish for death or sexualized violence on the sportswriter. It is unfair to expect that women will have the mental or emotional bandwidth to fight trolls all the time.

This was especially evident in #MoreThanMean, when the male participants had to use their own emotional strength to get through reading the tweets. The experience was harrowing: One of the tweets directed to DiCaro, who bravely wrote in 2013 of her rape, read, “I hope you get raped again.” On more than one occasion, DiCaro has described the abuse as “soul-sucking.”

As emotionally exhausting as it is, DiCaro and Spain have very courageously pushed this conversation forward. I can’t fathom sitting in a chair and hearing all those awful comments spoken to me in front of the whole world. DiCaro and Spain used this opportunity to educate and share lived experiences.

But I wondered: Why did this particular video affect so many people? Was it the way we were able to see Spain and DiCaro as people, not just as faceless personalities on social media? Or were the men so sincere in their discomfort that the public was mortified?

DiCaro thinks it is the latter. “Honestly, I think it’s because society in general believes men more than they believe women. Sarah and I could scream from the rafters about being harassed, but if it was just us in the video, I wonder if it would have had the same impact,” she said.

DiCaro believes #MoreThanMean is a great start toward addressing this pervasive reluctance to acknowledge women speaking about abuse. In addition to urging social media companies to take action, she also tasked those horrified individuals to make change themselves, by including women in conversations, helping to promote them in industries where women are outnumbered, and by recommending women for panels and conferences. “Don’t speak for us; scoot over and give us a place at the table where we can speak for ourselves,” she wrote.

To men, DiCaro emphasized, “And if you see a buddy or family member beating up on women online, SAY SOMETHING. It’s not okay for people to treat others this way, and it’s not okay to stand by silently, either.”

It is my experience as a visible woman of color that there are no limits to the abuses that can be showered upon a woman for speaking up about a game, a team, or advocating for a victim of sexual assault by a player. I write about misogyny and race in sports; I also write about Muslim women. So, the abuse I receive is not only sexist, but coupled with Islamophobic and racist opinions. Charming, I know. This occurs only because I am doing what I am supposed to. Essentially, women sportswriters are abused for doing their jobs. For thousands of women in this industry and others, we don’t accept it but are are forced to tolerate it.

This is probably another reason #MoreThanMean struck a chord with so many. DiCaro said she was approached by women who admitted they never felt like they could talk about it before they saw the video. She suspects a lot of women keep it quiet or constantly self-edit to make sure they say nothing anyone could possibly object to. Both approaches silence women and suggest complacency is a way to combat abuse.

One way to also move away from a toxic, and in my opinion dangerous, acceptance of abuse is to support women’s work in the industry. In a column about #MoreThanMean project, DiCaro wrote, “Support women’s sports. Read and share women sportswriters. Question why more women, and especially women of color, aren’t actively promoted by their employers. Call out panels at events that don’t include women. Teach your sons and daughters that women have a place in sports equal to men.”

I feel this is essential if we want to move forward at all.

As far as handling the abuse, DiCaro told me about her self-care routines and how she should make them more of a priority. “We’re all working so hard to get ahead in this industry, [self-care] tends to fall by the wayside. But lately I’ve been giving myself permission to not charge so hard after everything. To set longer deadlines for myself, to have nights where I do nothing but watch a River Monsters marathon. And I’m a huge proponent of having pets. No matter how bad your day is, they always make you smile,” she said.

Her comments resonate with me too. As much as I rely on Twitter to stay connected and be “in the know,” I also love my time away from social media. It might involve watching Bend It like Beckham and eating popcorn. Or it might mean working out and just enjoying my family.

But self-care also means that when I log back on, I know I need help from other individuals to get through the day. After a few years on Twitter, I also became part of an informal support group of women who write about sports and its intersections with misogyny, sexual assault, politics, and various important social issues. We encourage and help each other every day, offering advice about projects, sharing contacts, and venting about our mentions. In response, we send each other photos of baby sloths or elephants and positive notes. This type of safe space is critical, particularly when we are trying to work while simultaneously swatting away trolls and defending ourselves against unfathomable rudeness.

Women are moving forward in sports writing and presenting, as game correspondents and as match analysts. As this happens, it is important to highlight toxicity in sports media and make sure that male colleagues, readers, and fans are aware of the abuse that happens and how they can eradicate it. It will not go away on its own. Consistently promoting the voices of women, and not excluding them from discussions of violence, is crucial. Equally important is addressing the layers of misogyny, racism, and homophobia present in all facets of the industry, including online.

Women need to lead discussions on what are the best strategies to combat online harassment and abuse. But it cannot be done without support.