Global Citizen is a community of people like you

People who want to learn about and take action on the world’s biggest challenges. Extreme poverty ends with you.

Matt Lauer, co host of the NBC "Today" television program, is framed by two studio cameras, in New York Monday, May 11, 2009.
Richard Drew/AP
OpinionGirls & Women

Why Matt Lauer's Harassment of Women Might Finally Be a Cultural Tipping Point

Few TV personalities are as iconic as Matt Lauer, the host of NBC’s “Today Show.” For the last 20 years, Lauer’s has been the face that greeted America every weekday morning.

Until Wednesday morning.

“Good morning everybody, welcome to ‘Today,’” Lauer’s longtime co-host Savannah Guthrie said, though Lauer was glaringly absent. 

She then broke the news that Lauer had been fired following a “detailed complaint from a colleague about inappropriate sexual behavior in the workplace by Matt Lauer.” 

“As I’m sure you can imagine, we are devastated and we are still processing all of this,” Guthrie said. “For the moment, all we can say is that we are heartbroken. I am heartbroken for Matt. He is my dear, dear friend and my partner and he is beloved by many, many people here.”

And she’s not alone.

Lauer became the latest in a wave of men to be accused of sexual harassment or sexual assault over the past two months — what Guthrie called a “reckoning” in the culture. But today’s news of Lauer’s inclusion in that list of accused men was also different. 

Millions of people across the US start their days off watching NBC’s “Today Show.” They tune into the morning talk show for news updates, celebrity interviews, lifestyle tips, and fun holiday segments — and the program’s affable hosts are a major part of the show’s draw.

People have grown accustomed to the on-air banter and camaraderie of the “Today Show’s” hosts. Lauer, Guthrie, Kotb, and Al Roker give off the impression of being a family, and in a sense, they feel like your family.

They’re accessible, relatable, and dependable. They’re in our homes, and we trust them. And perhaps that’s why the accusations against Lauer and his sudden departure from the “Today Show” smart in ways that the allegations against Harvey Weinstein and other public figures may not have. He is, after all, a household name.

For some, Lauer’s transgressions feel like a betrayal; the revelation of his misbehavior came as a surprise.

But Lauer is a product of the same culture that gave rise to Weinstein and all of the other men who have reportedly engaged in harassing behavior in the past — a culture in which the phrase “grab ‘em by the pussy” passes for locker room talk.

Though Lauer may seem more down-to-earth, more relatable than Weinstein, he lives in the same world — we all do.

Lauer’s is a world in which his former co-host Katie Couric was dismissed as joking when said on live TV that Lauer’s “most annoying habit” is that “he pinches [her] on the ass a lot.” It’s a world in which he gave a co-worker a sex toy with a note about how he wanted to use it on her and was not punished, Variety revealed late Wednesday afternoon.

Read more: The Very Good Reason People Are Posting ‘Me, Too’ All Over Social Media

In the statement he sent to NBC employees, chairman Andy Lack said, “While it is the first complaint about his behavior in the over 20 years he has been at NBC News, we were also presented with reason to believe this may not have been an isolated incident.”

Lauer’s past and present colleagues told Variety during their two-month investigation into his “inappropriate sexual behavior” that he would ask female producers on the show who they had slept with and that several women had, in fact, complained to NBC executives, but were ignored.

“I’m heartbroken for the brave colleague who came forward to tell her story and any other women who have their own stories to tell,” Guthrie said on Wednesday’s show. 

“We are grappling with a dilemma that so many people have faced these past few weeks,” Guthrie said on the “Today Show.” “How do you reconcile your love for someone with the revelation that they have behaved badly? And I don’t know the answer to that.”

It’s a question we should all be asking ourselves.

Often, we don’t want to believe the people we trust and know well could or would harm others — but perpetrators of sexual harassment and assault are not evil villains, they’re someone’s friends and family, and they’re still capable of wrongdoing.

Lauer’s alleged behavior may have come as a surprise — or stoked feelings of betrayal in viewers — but in fact, the inclusion of Lauer on the growing list of men accused shows just how pervasive sexual harassment and its enabling culture are.

Lauer’s “inappropriate sexual behavior” was enabled by a culture that has systematically devalued women for generations — and which is definitely not unique to the US.

The United Nations estimates that 90% of countries around the world still have at least one law that discriminates against women. Women continue to be paid less than their male counterparts and remain underrepresented in politics, according to the World Economic Forum. And no country has fully closed the gender gap.

Just because viewers have come to love and trust Lauer does not make him any less capable of committing the same abuses as those we may be more inclined to quickly brand “monsters.”

Read more: After More Than 500K Women Tweeted #MeToo, Men Are Responding With 4 Words

Approximately a third of women worldwide said they have experienced physical or sexual violence at the hands of an intimate partner, the World Health Organization reported. The Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) reported that 93% of child victims of sexual assault knew their attackers — in fact, 34% of the time, their abusers were family members. 

Sexual harassment, assault, and other forms of gender-based violence are everywhere — not just in boardrooms, not just on film sets, not just in Congress. It happens on buses in Morocco, on the streets of India and Mexico, and college campuses across the US.

Lauer might be one of many men that has been called out for sexual harassment in the last few months, but he’s one of just a handful that has been fired and been forced to face repercussions — albeit belatedly — for his actions.

And though his firing may be hard for some at NBC and will certainly change the dynamic of one of America’s favorite morning talk shows, it’s a step forward for women everywhere, a sign that sexual harassment in the workplace and other arenas will no longer simply be tolerated.