Going “On the Record” About How Sexual Harassment and Violence Erase Women and Thwart Their Leadership Intentions

Issue 141— September 7, 2020

Drew Dixon’s resume includes Former Vice President of A&R at Arista Records, a former director of A&R at Def Jam Recordings, the former general manager of John Legend’s label Homeschool Records, and the former manager of recording artist Estelle. She produced more hit records than I can count with artists you know. Dixon is the founder of the independent label The Ninth Floor, the tech-enabled beauty start-up EverythingDid, and the co-creator of the TV series Reciprocity.

Definitely an ambitious and intentional woman who knew from her teenage years that working in the music business was her dream.

And yet, she left the career she loved at its height. Why?

I had the opportunity to interview Dixon shortly after the HBO Max documentary “On the Record” was released in May, 2020. It streams free through September 12, 2020.

Two incidents according to Dixon, caused her to leave her dream career, pack up her bags and head to Harvard to get an MBA without a clear plan for the future. Only after she had started studying survivor’s trauma did she realize how these incidents had harmed her self-worth and thwarted her career.

She said that she was first routinely sexually harassed then raped by hip hop star and founder of the Def Jam label, Russell Simmons. “I was nothing. Trash,” she says in the film, recounting how she felt about herself after the alleged rape.

After she left Def Jam because she simply couldn’t work in its toxic environment any more, she went to work for record executive L.A. Reid, where she was again sexually harassed.

Dixon’s story tells much more than the prevalence of sexual harassment, abuse, and assault in the world. We’ve all been witness to more than enough about that, from the Harvey Weinstein scandal to Matt Lauer to any number of lesser known men who have fallen in the wake of the long overdue #metoo movement.

“On the Record,” directed and produced by documentary filmmaker luminaries such Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick and supported by the likes of Regina Scully’s Artemis Rising and Abby Disney’s Level Forward, also lays bare the particular complexities of Black women’s accusations of sexual abuse, and especially those by powerful Black men, that make it all the more courageous for the women in the documentary to come forward. “I love my culture,” Dixon told me, “and I don’t want to feed the harmful stereotypes.”

What became starkly clear to me is the damage those experiences do to women’s minds, their self-images, their sense of self-worth and as a result derail their careers and indeed their whole lives.

It took incredible courage for Dixon to come forward and ignite fully the smoldering embers of this story by not just telling it publicly, but also being willing to threaten to take the alleged perpetrator of rape to court and allowing her experience to become the center of “On the Record.”

Her voice enabled dozens of other women to raise their voices and tell their stories too. She is keenly aware of her responsibility to be that voice, not to be silent, not to be “the plantation owner sipping a mint julep on the porch” while seeing wrong being done.

When it comes to women’s equality, especially when it comes to maintaining ambition and driving women’s intentions to reach leadership parity in any industry or profession, sexual harassment and violence are not just wrong, they hold women back, plain and simple. They make us doubt ourselves, lower our self-esteem, and cause us to resist embracing the powerful woman who lives inside of each one of us.

That in turn leads to higher rates of anxiety and depression.

A study entitled “Sexual Harassment of Women Leaders” published in Daedalus’s Winter 2020 edition concludes that “sexual harassment is a workplace hazard that raises the costs for women to pursue leadership ambitions and, in turn, reinforces gender gaps in income, status, and voice.” The study found that sexual harassment deters women from seeking advancement, and therefore women’s talents aren’t used at the same level as men’s. This is as financially costly to families and companies as it is emotionally costly to the women themselves.

Dixon put it this way: “If you are raped, you are the currency. Your life is your currency. The crime gets perpetrated and re-perpetrated every day. You carry it with you. I am a living crime scene. The most authentic part of myself carried the pain so I couldn’t open that box. I didn’t realize how much I was in a cage. And until I said it out loud and told the tale, I was shattered. If the #metoo movement hadn’t happened, I mean it literally saved my life.”

Watching On the Record, I was incredibly moved as Dixon and other women such as hip hop pioneer Sheri Sher, writer Jenny Lumet, the former assistant and model Sil Lai Abrams and the hip-hop artist Sherri Hines courageously went public. They told their stories slowly, thoughtfully, with deep, painful honesty. In each case it had taken years for them to be able and then willing to speak up. In each case it laid bare the power imbalance of a famous, even iconic, man pitted against talented women who worked with or for him.

While the music industry was open enough to provide a significant amount of opportunity for women to enter and make names for themselves, there was also a tremendous amount of sexual harassment that was considered simply “the price of admission.” Dixon put it this way, “Women are made smaller and smaller every time they have to laugh off a joke or an advance — it’s grooming women to tolerate that behavior.”

My work to understand women’s ambivalent relationship with power starts with listening to women’s voices. I have learned that as terrible as the physical experience of sexual assault is in the moment, what it does to our intentions for our own lives and careers is just as profound. And the experience of harassment over time can be equally devastating, like water on stone gradually eroding even the hardest boulder.

Sexual objectification, harassment, and all forms of violence are “power over” techniques used to keep women silent and secondary. Baked into the culture like salt into the food we eat. I doubt there is a man over 50 who hasn’t committed such behavior or a woman over 30, maybe 16, who hasn’t experienced it in some form. Call it what it is.

The experience is awful but what it does to our heads is worse.

An under-acknowledged piece of the puzzle of who women haven’t reached leadership parity is the deeply ingrained sexual harassment and violence in our workplace culture.

Still, if we recognize that dynamic and consciously shift the power paradigm to the power TO prevail over, we can ameliorate the effects of those harmful experiences and we can change the culture.

Reid was forced to step down as chair of Epic Records in 2017 after multiple allegations of such harassment. Though Simmons refutes Dixon’s claims and remains at the helm of his companies, at this point 20 or more women have come forward with reports of sexual harassment or rape.

There are men who understand and are partners in ending the toxic culture that Dixon described. My friend Vada Manager, who first introduced me “On the Record” and has been working to promote it told me the reason he is involved in the project is this: “I have known Drew since young adulthood and admired her passion and ambition in music and life. I didn’t know until years later why she retreated from an industry that she loved and had experienced much success. OTR sadly provided that missing storyline. I’ve seen firsthand the trauma caused to Drew and other survivors and want to be an ally in ensuring that we rid our workplaces and homes from limiting the full potential of women.”

In a Fortune interview, Dixon says the film’s existence gives her hope: “It is literally just the beginning of a conversation that we have to have about the music industry and about sexual violence in general and about the vulnerability of black women and the way we are not protected with the kind of reciprocity that we show our men and the way we protect them.”

When we spoke, she was adamant that simply promoting women isn’t the complete answer, that what matters is that leaders of both genders use their platforms to change the underlying systems. Setting a tone where toxic masculinity isn’t accepted and creating space where dangerous behaviors don’t get overlooked let alone rewarded is key. To young women, she says, “Don’t let these men cause you to second guess yourself…trust your gut. Harassment will get incrementally worse if it’s not stopped. Email yourself if you can’t tell anyone else so you document what has happened. Remember, it’s not you, it’s him at fault.”

We all have a responsibility to use the power of our voices to speak up for those with less power. To listen to the voices of women and let them know they are heard and believed, that their words and talents have value. And to organize to make systemic change even as we work to support survivors. Join Take The Lead to shift the power paradigm from oppressive power over to power TO — one where we can all thrive and succeed.

Be sure to see “On the Record” and tell your friends to see it. And listen to my podcast to hear more of Drew Dixon in her own words. Please share it and this article with anyone whom you think they might help. Listen, subscribe, and let me know how it goes for you.

GLORIA FELDT is the Cofounder and President of Take The Lead, a motivational speaker and expert women’s leadership developer for companies that want to build gender balance, and a bestselling author of four books, most recently No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power. Former President of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, she teaches “Women, Power, and Leadership” at Arizona State University and is a frequent media commentator. Learn more at www.gloriafeldt.com and www.taketheleadwomen.com. Tweet Gloria Feldt.

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