Watson v Diet Madison Ave: should advertising's harassment vigilantes be unmasked?

Stephanie Peirolo addresses the developing case between Ralph Watson and the anonymous Diet Madison Avenue / Javardh via Unsplash

Who gets to be anonymous and why?

The people behind Diet Madison Avenue (DMA) and those who used their Instagram account to speak out about harassment in advertising have chosen to remain anonymous. Now Ralph Watson, formerly of CP+B, is taking legal action to unmask these people and hold them legally accountable for revealing the accusations against him.

If he feels he was fired illegally, Watson should by all means take legal action against his employers, who have deep pockets and plenty of attorneys.

Why go after DMA? It is unlikely that they have the legal resources to defend themselves, and revealing who they are puts their careers and reputations at risk.

Before any debate the merits of anonymity can take place, we need to acknowledge that victims of sexual harassment are often punished for speaking out. And one of the forms of punishment is being blackballed, pushed out of consideration for jobs and/or promotions by a different kind of whisper campaign.

I’ve been a victim of a hostile work environment and sexual harassment more than once in my career, and I have been fired for calling out sexual harassment.

I imagine most of the women who are making these claims anonymously are in the same position I was; they can’t afford not to work and they are afraid of retaliation, but they want this behavior to stop.

Being blackballed happens, it’s happened to me. The conversations over drinks between men about women who speak up about hostility and harassment include words like “difficult,” “emotional,” “bitch,” and “thin-skinned”. I know because male friends have told me things like that were said about me in those conversations.

A male attorney friend of mine said that one problem with anonymous accusations is that they violate our legal right to face our accusers.

But the men being accused don't typically face prosecution, despite the fact that what they are doing is illegal. The worst that will happen to them is that they will lose their very lucrative, high-profile jobs. And they might have trouble getting another job, especially if the accusations are proven to be credible or true.

On the other hand, there are women who have lost their less lucrative, lower-profile jobs for speaking out about being victims. And they might not get hired again either, because someone will whisper to someone else using phrases like “thin-skinned,” or “too sensitive,” or “can’t roll with the punches.”

Of course, there are risks to anonymous accusations and these risks should be debated and guarded against. If a company fires someone without due diligence or proper procedures that company should be held accountable. But we need to do so with an understanding that victims and those who defend them who speak out publicly are also at risk.

As we consider how to navigate this turbulent time, we need to be mindful that the culture and the system are still hostile to people who come forward. And the people who come forward are usually women who aren’t paid the way the men they accuse are paid, they don’t have the financial resources to defend themselves against counterattacks. Anonymity may be a necessary evil to protect them until more robust structures are in place to shield those already damaged by sexual harassment from being still more damaged by being blackballed.

If Watson has not harassed anyone ever, it must have been quite painful to be falsely accused on social media. The women who speak out about sexism who are regularly threatened with rape and violence on social media suffer as well. Anonymous accusations and threats on social media are wrong, and should be addressed. But going after DMA is not the way to do that.

I have accused men of sexual harassment before, with proof, and they usually react with denial, rage and retaliation. If Watson is looking for financial compensation for being unjustly fired, he can go after his employer. If he didn’t sexually harass anyone, he is free to speak publicly about that, and to raise valid questions about the risks of anonymous accusations to people who have not been legally proven to have done anything wrong, and he has done so.

People will listen. People have listened.

But by using his white male privilege and his financial resources to try to destroy the careers and financial security of people who were trying to protect women like me, he is yet another man choosing rage and retaliation.

As I have done with the men who have sexually harassed me and others, I invite him to be a better man. I invite him to understand that he is part of a brutal industry that has damaged the careers, reputations and livelihoods of so many women. The non-disclosure agreements that we have to sign in these settlements – and I have signed them – keep us from warning each other, and we are trying to find ways to keep each other safe.

These methods might be flawed, but they are all that is available to us. Watson may not be guilty of harassment, but if he continues this legal attack on DMA, he is perpetuating an unjust system by attacking and silencing women and those who seek to protect them.

Stephanie Peirolo is a consultant, founder and CEO of Upperhand, LLC.

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