How To Prevent The Next Harvey Weinstein
Tech exec teams up with Hollywood actresses to stop sexual harassment
As disgraced Hollywood movie mogul Harvey Weinstein begins a 23-year prison sentence for rape and sexual assault, two of his accusers have teamed up with a Los Angeles-based technology entrepreneur to ensure that other women do not have to suffer the trauma they’ve endured.
Katherine Kendall, one of the first actresses to speak out against Weinsten, and Sarah Ann Masse, an actress who interviewed for a nanny job with Weinstein in 2008, are working with Morgan Mercer, founder and CEO of Vantage Point, an immersive, virtual reality platform for sexual harassment training, to stop predatory behavior in its tracks.
Unlike typical anti-harassment trainings, which involve clicking through a PowerPoint presentation or watching a video and answering a few questions, Vantage Point thrusts the user into a “live,” 360-degree virtual reality experience, where he or she watches a scene of harassment unfold before them and has to make decisions about how to respond as the situation progresses.
Mercer describes a scene from one of the trainings:
“When you put the (VR) headset on, you’re transported into a workplace scenario where Greg, the Company All-Star, corners Sascha, the New Hire, and shows her photos of ‘hot girls next to cars’ on his phone. As the situation escalates and he asks Sascha out for drinks, he looks over at you and raises his eyebrows in a slightly snarky and playful way.”
“The reality of the scene is powerful,” she continues, “from the humming of the air conditioner to the photo-realism of the characters. The silence as Sascha holds her breath while Greg puts his hands on her is louder than any scream.”
Along the way, the storyline evolves based on how you, the observer, responds to the situation.
To create the scripts, Mercer consulted survivors of sexual assault and harassment, including actresses Katherine Kendall and Sarah Masse, as well as lawyers, psychologists and human resources experts. Kendall and Masse are even cast as “characters” in some of the scenes.
“Every scene in the training is based on something that has happened in real life,” says Mercer. “Every word we use is something that’s actually been said.”
This realism creates empathy, she explains. “Watching your coworker experience physical and psychological trauma shows you that your actions or passivity have major consequences on how things play out.”
Current Harassment Training Doesn’t Work
Mercer, a survivor of sexual violence herself, conceived of Vantage Point in 2016, after a conversation with corporate executives about how to respond to sexual harassment.
“I’m sitting at a table with all of these high-powered execs, talking about gender equity and other problems in the workplace, and I’m realizing that no one has any answers,” she explains. “No one could identify how and when to intervene in situations of escalating sexual harassment.”
That’s when she recognized there was a gap in education that needed to be filled.
Although sexual harassment trainings have become mandatory in many states, cases of harassment are still on the rise. A 2018 report from the Center for Talent Innovation (CTI) found that more than one in three women in white-collar jobs have been victims of sexual harassment.
According to researchers, anti-harassment trainings, in their current format, do not work, and may even worsten the problem. A 2013 study by Justine Tinkler, a sociologist at the University of Georgia, showed that some trainings can actually amplify gender biases and stereotypes — ones that portray men as powerful and predatory, and women as weak and vulnerable. Other research found that trainings that label people as “harassers” or “victims” are often dismissed by employees who don’t feel the label applies to them.
Companies offer anti-trainings to protect themselves from liability, but, in many cases, they focus on spotting bad behavior rather than eliminating it, according to the findings of a 2015 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission task force.
Virtual Reality Market Continues Growth
Vantage Point hopes to change the outcome by changing the model. The company’s sales continue to grow, despite the global Covid-19 pandemic that has shut down offices across the country and around the world. The company recently signed on the Hollywood Commission, headed by lawyer and activist Anita Hill, and counts Comcast, global logistics giant Kuehne & Nagel, and the law firm Latham & Watkins as customers.
Investors are taking notice. Even in the midst of the pandemic, Vantage Point recently closed a $2.25 million capital raise from investors, including former COO of Deutsche Bank George Hornig, former Dropbox CTO Quentin Clark, and Bá Minuzzi of Umana Family. Village Global, which counts Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg and Reid Hoffman as LPs, is an early investor. The recent round brings the company’s overall investment to $3.75 million.
This is a big deal for Morgan, who counts herself among a handful of black, female tech entrepreneurs who have received venture capital funding. According to AllRaise, a scant .0006% of total venture dollars have gone to black female founders since 2009.
Although VR is an emerging technology that hasn’t hit mass market quite yet, recent data from research firm Statista shows that the VR industry as a whole is growing at a fast pace, with the market size of virtual reality hardware and software projected to increase from 6.2 billion U.S. dollars in 2019 to more than 16 billion U.S. dollars by 2022. By application, the enterprise segment is expected to grow at the highest rate during the forecast period. Companies like Verizon, Jet Blue and Walmart are using VR to train their employees and are showing positive results.
Image Caption: Actress Katherine Kendall and Vantage Point CEO Morgan Mercer team up to stop sexual harassment // MORGAN MERCER