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Why Does A Culture of Harassment Persist in Comics — And How Do We Fix It?

by  in Comic News Comment
Why Does A Culture of Harassment Persist in Comics — And How Do We Fix It?

The past few weeks, harassment culture has been a major topic of discussion in the comic book industry. The reality is that this isn’t news — especially not to the women working in the industry, who are frequently the victims of harassment. For them, it’s often part of their everyday jobs, as commonplace as morning coffee.

Last month, I was on a panel at Emerald City Comicon about preventing harassment in the comics community. As we panelists spoke, I saw faces in the crowd reflecting so many things: surprise, sadness, recognition, anger and empathy. Audience members had questions and shared stories, craving information and validation for things they’d experienced. It felt good to be able to help them, especially the people who approached me after the panel ended, asking for specific advice on harassment they’d experienced. In addition to writing here at CBR, I’ve been employed as a Human Resources professional for most of my adult life. Specifically, I work in Employee Relations, which means that my days are spent investigating claims of unprofessional behavior, partnering with managers to coach employees, interpreting policy, and advising on best practices. I’ve dealt with a lot of harassment at work, and sadly, I see so much of it in the world of comics.

RELATED: Sexual Harassment Allegations Against DC Editor Eddie Berganza Become Public

I’ve had people tell me their experiences of being fondled, having sexual comments made about their bodies, being cornered in small spaces and screamed at, having their jobs threatened if they didn’t cover up for someone and having jokes made about their sexual orientation. Think about that for a moment — can you imagine the anxiety you’d feel going in to work? The sense of dread, of unknowing, about how you might be violated that day? And even for people who aren’t directly harassed, there is still the trauma of being aware of it, of seeing it happen to your co-workers, of knowing exactly who the individuals are to avoid and having to accept them as part of the job.

But why does anyone have to accept working with someone who has demonstrated such unacceptable behavior? Why should contending with harassment be part of working in comics? The answer is: it shouldn’t. No one, in any industry, should have to work in these conditions. Workplace harassment is illegal and all employers are required to take steps to protect their employees if they validate that inappropriate behavior is happening.

Now, the legal definition of harassment is slightly different than the common use of the word, so to be clear: harassment is unwelcome conduct motivated by race, color, religion, gender, pregnancy, national origin, age, genetic information or disability. This means behavior that would be considered “offensive” by most people is illegal, when tolerating it is a condition of continued employment. This isn’t a nice-to-have-feel-good-policy, it’s dictated federally and there are penalties for employers who don’t respond appropriately.

So why does it continue to be so prevalent in comics?

Comics are a prestige industry. This means anyone working in comics is expected to feel grateful for their position and put up with industry quirks: low pay, long hours, unprofessional behavior and hostile work environments. Let’s dispel this idea: no one is lucky to work in comics. They are skilled. They are talented. They worked hard to develop their personal point of view, artistic talents or professional skills. Sure, there is a bit of luck involved in getting a foot in the door, but if they weren’t qualified, they wouldn’t even know where the door was. The fact that a job is cool or creative doesn’t mean anyone is expected to sacrifice their legal rights, self-respect, safety, or dignity.

But this persists, because it’s a tiny, tiny industry with relatively no turnover or widespread diversity in positions of power. Coupled with the fact that many entry level jobs are occupied by a younger demographic who have less experience in traditional workplaces, this creates a knowledge and power gap — if you don’t know what you are entitled to from an employer, have the confidence to speak up, and are already being made to feel like you should be grateful for the work, how likely would you be to report harassment? Not very likely.

A culture of harassment exists in comics, plainly, because the people in positions of power allow it to exist. If higher ups took a firm stand in building a company culture that promoted a safe working environment with consistently observed policies, a robust leadership team committed to maintaining a healthy work place, and transparent paths for reporting unprofessional behavior, known harassers likely would not still be employed.

It’s time for publishers to take a stand and decide to prioritize the health and well-being of their employees over everything else. It’s time for creators to speak out, to refuse to work with known harassers, and to build a network of solidarity for the fair treatment of all industry professionals. It’s not enough for this industry to say they value people, it’s time to show it with direct action.

If you have experienced mistreatment, harassment, or any similar behavior, report it to your direct supervisor and your company Human Resources department immediately. In order for your employer to take action, you must make them aware — so document what you’re experiencing and seek partnership immediately. If your company doesn’t take appropriate action to resolve the issue, contact the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, The Department of Fair Employment and Housing, or your state-specific employee rights organization.

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