What is a whisper network?
A whisper network is the conversations, hints, rumors and information passed between women about men who have a history of sexual misconduct, assault or harassment. Think of it as the information that's passed from one person to another about the bad actions of another, often a coworker or member of the same industry. The details are passed in a metaphorical "whisper" because of power dynamics and fear of reprisal if the information is shared openly.
In The New Yorker, writer Jia Tolentino defines it as, "the unofficial information channel that women use to warn each other about men whose sexual behavior falls on the spectrum from creepy to criminal." Summer Meza describes it as "an oral history that was never documented beyond the confines of a private conversation between women. It always existed, but it could never be traced," in an article in The Washington Post.
The history and use of the phrase.
The phrase rose to national prominence during the #MeToo movement after the Harvey Weinstein scandal. Many women, the media reported, had been warned by one another not to work with Weinstein, or to be careful if they had to be around him. Further examples from the media industry of bad behavior that was known among colleagues followed, and industries beyond Hollywood also exposed many offenders known by people within whisper networks. These unofficial communication channels are often the result of toxic power dynamics, such as when the offenders are the heads of the company. Employees know about the bad behavior, but lack the resources or power to put a stop to it; warning each other is one of the only available options.
In October 2017, the "Shitty Media Men" list created by writer Moira Donegan circulated the internet turning what is usually a verbal exchange of information into a digital product. The fallout over compiling a crowdsourced list of alleged assaults and behavior was swift and critical. A $1.5 million dollar lawsuit was filed by Stephen Elliott of The Rumpus.
While the media and Hollywood have had the most public examples of men behaving badly, The New York Times' 2017 article "Women's Whisper Network Raises Its Voice" describes a long-running whisper network at the investment bank Bear Stearns in existence since the 1990s. A group of women would meet every few months to discuss how to make the workplace better for women, and would wind up trading advice about who to avoid or how to handle certain men.
These networks have existed since men and women worked together. As the Times' puts it, "the network also allowed employees to clue each other into a spectrum of behavior that was often unseen or ignored by their employers — the boss who scoffs at maternity leave, the manager known for ribald jokes, the colleague rumored to be a groper, or worse."
Why these networks matter.
Before Weinstein, many women didn't believe they had the power to speak up about workplace harassment, abuse or assault without retaliation or career suicide. With the domino effect stemming from the publicity of the #MeToo movement, many workplaces revitalized and revamped workplace harassment training, protocols and rules.
While the situation is far from reconciled in many workplaces, the exposure and conversation around how men behave at work has helped many feel empowered to speak up beyond the whisper network. That said, in the companies where power is held by men with no oversight and poor behavior and judgment, the whisper network is still very much needed to keep new or inexperienced employees apprised of what exactly the situation is at the office.
Whisper Network, the book.
In July 2019, Flatiron Books is releasing a novel by Chandler Baker called "Whisper Network." The story centers around a group of four women who work for a man named Ames who has a reputation around how he treats women. After he's promoted to CEO of the company they work for, he makes a move on a colleague and the four women decided enough is enough. As lies and secrets are exposed, the office dynamic changes radically.