As a model and the founder of the Model Alliance, a nonprofit research, policy and advocacy organization in the fashion industry, Sara Ziff is calling for an independent monitor to foster a culture of sexual respect. Having declined several requests for phone interviews in recent weeks, Ziff sent an unsolicited op-ed Wednesday morning to WWD.
With 20 years of modeling experience, Ziff produced the documentary “Picture Me” before starting the New York-based organization in 2012 to help give models a voice in their careers. With a bachelor’s from Columbia University and a master’s from Harvard Kennedy School of Government, her insights lean a little more academic than the approach model Edie Campbell took last month in her open letter to WWD.
Although the Model Alliance has started an unrelated end-of-the-year $20,000 fund-raising campaign to “curb sexual abuse and foster a culture of accountability in the fashion industry,” information on that site refers to how engrained the problem is. “Over the past couple of months, numerous people working in the fashion industry have come forward to share their stories of sexual harassment and assault on the job. Sadly, we were not surprised by these stories,” the organization said.
In fact, the Model Alliance’s homepage notes how when a group of models was asked at a meeting recently who had been put on the spot at a casting or job to pose nude, “every single hand went up.”
In her own words to WWD, Ziff mapped out some of the changes she would like to see. Here is what she wrote:
After the initial outrage unleashed in recent weeks by sexual misconduct scandals, public discussion has turned to the question of how best to change industry cultures that have bred sexual harassment and abuse. Take, for example, the modeling industry, in which sexual predation might seem genetically encoded in a culture of sexual enticement and bodily display.
Abuse of models by predatory photographers, stylists and agents isn’t culturally predetermined. Sexual harassment is a product of the very institutions through which we work — namely the deeply entrenched work arrangements that foster a culture of sexual disrespect in the case of the modeling industry. In what other industry is it routine to demand that teenage girls stand naked in front of everyone else at work — backstage at shows, or alone at a male photographer’s apartment? There’s also the fracturing of employer responsibility: Does liability fall on the agency, the photographer or the client? Further, the designation of models in the U.S. as independent contractors rather than employees leaves models vulnerable to abuse.
One obvious first step is to extend coverage of the law to expand who can be held responsible for harassment. In October, I joined New York State Assemblywoman Nily Rozic to announce plans to introduce an amendment to the state’s antidiscrimination laws, which would extend protections against harassment on the job to models. This amendment would clarify where legal liability for job-related sexual harassment lies, which is a needed and long overdue change.
But the proposed bill only tackles one sector of a network of fashion industry professionals whose behaviors and avenues for adequate recourse must also be addressed. And compliance with sexual harassment law in an industry that capitalizes on sexual imagery will require further efforts. Clear, unambiguous guidance is needed to identify patterns of behavior that tend to generate sexual harassment and disrespect.
Recently, two well-intentioned fashion houses [Kering and LVMH] unilaterally promulgated a new Models’ Charter that they have invited other industry companies to adopt. While it is encouraging that these industry leaders have taken steps to begin to address workplace abuses, it is important to remember that analogous codes of conduct that were adopted through consensus in entire industries, not just announced by a well-intentioned few, have slouched into quiet irrelevance.
Why? Business self-monitoring has the inherent flaw of the “fox guarding the henhouse.” Industry and company self-regulation contradicts at least two fundamental principles of labor-rights enforcement. First, the best monitors of sexual harassment and other workers’ rights are the workers themselves. It’s their rights that are at stake, so they have the incentive to closely monitor working conditions. And they have the best knowledge of abuses at the workplace. Employment standards are much more strongly enforced in workplaces that are unionized.
In the absence of unions, the best alternative for enforcement of company codes is an independent, nonprofit monitoring organization in which workers — both employees and independent contractors, like models — have a strong voice. The fox does not guard the henhouse; the hens themselves do. An independent monitor can give workers a voice by carrying out surveys to create baselines, benchmark progress and develop more effective best practices. It is widely agreed that best practices in programs against sexual harassment include multiple avenues for reporting complaints. An independent monitor also decreases the fear of retaliation that complainants feel when they file complaints to their own superiors.
An independent monitor can also hold top executives accountable, sending the all-important message that top company officials have made a strong commitment to protection against sexual harassment. Reversing an organizational culture of predation starts at the top. Similarly, it is important that the independent monitors provide periodic training sessions. When employees see that even top managers are submitting themselves to awareness-raising programs, the lesson is clear. This does not mean that an independent monitor supplants internal corporate programs. Rather, the independent monitor should certify — give a “seal of approval” — to those companies that rigorously maintain best practices.
As we seek innovative ways to infuse sexual respect throughout the general culture, it is critical to build independent monitors adapted to each industry to promote sexual respect. This would, in effect, create a human resources department for matters of sexual harassment and abuse in industries that have not sufficiently addressed these concerns. The fashion industry now has an opportunity not only to solve these issues for itself but also to be a model for other industries.