CEO of BET Debra Lee spoke out about her relationship with Bob Johnson, the company’s founder, in an interview with Good Morning America. The affair, though scandalous on the surface, turned out to be a classic example of sexual harassment most women experience in the workplace.
Lee documents her relationship with Johnson in her upcoming memoir “I Am Debra Lee.” She told GMA the affair began when both her and Johnson were still married and continued on after they divorced their spouses. It soon became known to the company and the public that the two were in a romantic relationship. Lee also said beyond the romance, she worked for Johnson for 10 years. He was a mentor, helping her elevate in her career and reach success.
Suddenly, all of that became irrelevant once she decided she wanted to end things with him.
“It was like, ‘Well, if you want to break up with me, then you can leave tomorrow.’ And that was 20 years into my career at BET so I would have lost everything,” Lee said. She also said it felt like her career was being held above her ahead and to get a new position without a recommendation from Johnson would have been difficult.
After Johnson left the company, she rose to CEO. However, the circumstances of their relationship came back to haunt her as women around the country began speaking up about the same experiences in the #MeToo movement.
“I wanted to tell that story because power dynamics are so important in a relationship, especially if you’re having a relationship with someone you work for. We all know the potential pitfalls,” she said.
With the rise of #MeToo in 2017 and the Time’s Up movement, Lee said she reexamined the relationship to determine if it was fully consensual if retaliation was a factor. “There’s other kind of harassment. It’s not all a man coming to the door in a robe,” she said.
“At times it felt consensual, because we were out in public, but after #MeToo and Time’s Up, I sort of reevaluated the whole thing and said, ‘Was this really my choice?’” Lee questioned.
According to the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a total of 5,581 sexual harassment charges were filed in 2021. Over 2,000 of the complaints in 2021 were filed concurrently with retaliation charges. Between 2018 and 2021, 78 percent of those charges were filed by women.
These numbers become more impactful once you realize someone as powerful and influential as Debra Lee was also be subject to the same foul treatment. Naturally, the tabloids would want to highlight the infidelity which is why women - especially, Black women - are usually reluctant to speak up in the first place.
However, we need more voices like Lee’s to help rid ourselves of the shame from an incident that wasn’t our fault.