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Guthrie investigates toxic work culture claims after #MeToo posts on Facebook

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Last week Molly Diers, a carpenter at the Guthrie Theater’s scene shop, posted a #metoo declaration that was widely circulated on Facebook. In the post, she announced she was resigning. Diers had worked at the Guthrie for 13 years, first as a freelancer then as a staffer.

"I couldn’t believe it when a job opened up and I was offered it, my dream had finally come true," she writes in the post. "Unfortunately, after only three and a half years I am resigning from my dream... The Guthrie as an organization breeds a culture that has kept and continues to keep women down. I have watched under qualified white men be promoted over me my entire career and cannot sit back and watch it happen yet again."

According to Diers' post, she approached management multiple times with complaints about the scene-shop manager, who she says “breeds a sexist culture and continues to encourage it,” including  mocking, belittling, and off-color jokes. In the post, she mentions that a female co-worker was physically blocked from reporting a sexual assault incident to HR.

Diers has declined to be interviewed. But she's not the only person resigning and posting about it on Facebook. Soon after her announcement, scene-shop staff member Nate Saul quit in support of Diers.

"For a long time, the work environment at the Guthrie has been full of anxiety at best, outright fear at worst," he writes online, "... the more I worked on my own stuff, the more aware I became of the parts of the Guthrie’s culture and systems that actively disempower specific groups of people."

Following the allegations, the Guthrie announced an investigation to be conducted by the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels. They are currently reaching out to former and current employees.

“We certainly want to be able to share the findings of that investigation,” says Guthrie’s managing director Jennifer Bielstein. “And what we learn from it and what we plan to implement because of it.”

Bielstein acknowledged that management knew of complaints that had been made by the staff member, but not of any sexual assault allegations. “It was absolutely news to Joe Haj and to me from a leadership perspective of her allegations of assault and from being blocked in reporting that to human resources,” Bielstein says.

When Haj began his role as artistic director of the Guthrie two and a half years ago, there was hope among production workers that changes would be made. “There was a huge amount of culture toxicity, and everyone was excited that it was going to be addressed,” says Allana Olson, who has worked at the Guthrie in the electrics department on occasion.

Haj’s tenure began with an ambitious agenda of shaking things up. He went on a listening tour, having conversations with staff and stakeholders in the community. Under Haj’s leadership, the Guthrie formed a Women’s Affinity Group, as well as affinity spaces for people of color and LGBTQ individuals.

The theater also implemented anti-harassment training, which was mandatory for managers and open to all employees. Bielstein notes that the Guthrie has always had an anti-harassment policy, which was expanded this summer, “to ensure that we were formally communicating it to all artists that were with us.”

Unfortunately, research suggests that simply having anti-sexual harassment training doesn't stop sexual harassment in the workplace. An article in Scientific American notes that while sexual harassment policies and training may prevent liabilities for an employer, the programs themselves are often ineffective.

A better strategy, according to a study by the American Sociological Association, is to have more women in leadership positions. The Equal Opportunity Employment Commission, meanwhile, recommends rewarding managers for having an increase in harassment investigations and otherwise demonstrating a proactive approach.

That seems to be the problem with the Guthrie’s initiatives, says Olson, who speaks as someone not currently working directly in the Guthrie’s shop but who is aware of the situation. 

"They had some bad feelings about what was being said versus what was being done,” Olson says. "Nowhere in that phase did I feel like the vibe from the female full-timers was that they were going to deal with the gender disparity problem.”

Since Diers' departure, there is only one full-time female staff member in the scene shop.

Bielstein believes there’s clearly work to be done. “I would say one of the things that we have really learned from this is that there are more people who have had things to share with us as an organization that haven’t felt like they had the right pathway to speak up,” she says. “We need to ensure that those voices are heard, and that we put the right systems and structures and responses in place to be able to deal with that.”

Bielstein added that the investigation will result in recommendations for the Guthrie in terms of policies and procedures, addressing improvements that need to be made.

Sexism in the workplace is certainly not unique to the Guthrie. Olson, along with Karen Sherman, who works at the Walker Art Center’s performance department and at other places as production crew, assert that this toxic culture is frequently part of the experience of being a woman working in a mostly male field.

“Backstage culture is dominated by men, and, in most theaters, by straight white men,” says Sherman. She has had male co-workers talk to her chest and touch her without invitation “in places that would not constitute sexual assault but in ways and places they would never touch another man.”

Sherman has also been dismissed, demeaned, mansplained to, endured endless rape and dick jokes, and deflected come-ons. “Many times I've had to find things to do in another part of the room so as not to work next to some guy who is asking about or trying make himself part of my sex life or just generally being creepy,” she says. Often, she adds, the ability to switch tasks or go to another part of the room isn’t an option.

Sherman is used to calling men out for sexist behavior, but she says it gets tiring. “It shouldn't have to be my job to point this out to otherwise intelligent, socially conscious men,” she says. “Honestly, if you have the time and brain space to learn about a new lighting technology every three days, you have the time and brain space to recognize your own and others' behavior.”

Sherman was horrified but not surprised by the recent allegations at the Guthrie. “[The Guthrie] and any number of other presenting institutions -- whether they are fostering an abusive backstage culture, harboring harassers on their artistic staff, or presenting artists who have built careers based on misogyny, racism, homophobia -- should clean house,” she says. The performance world has many brilliant artists, crew, curators, and staff. “It's time to rise them up through the ranks,” she says.