Among the major achievements of the #MeToo movement has been shifting the focus of sexual harassment from corrupt individuals to the pathological organizational systems that support and enable them. Women’s reports of sexual harassment can no longer be buried, in part because of social media.
The movement has shed light on harassers’ tactics, including reframing the “Weinstein clause” (named after convicted Hollywood über abuser Harvey Weinstein). It forces companies to disclose allegations of harassment against any employees when a business is being sold or acquired. Whether such remedial actions will extend from celebrities to less powerful women, remains to be seen.
Nonetheless, this is a major achievement of the #MeToo movement, a campaign that has swept the world and forced the powerful to acknowledge that harassers, once automatically protected, were now a liability. That’s the assessment of Australian Prof. Paula McDonald of Queensland University of Technology.
“Social media has enabled all women to go public with accusations, bypassing the gatekeepers who had historically buried their stories,” said Prof. McDonald, a noted researcher on work and organizations. “The strength and breadth of the #MeToo movement has forced the powerful to pay attention. In the US context, the high-profile outing and trial of Harvey Weinstein and others, has seen Wall Street add what is known as the ‘Weinstein clause’ to all acquisitions and sales. “The clause forces companies being sold or acquired to disclose any allegations of sexual harassment against officers, directors or employees.”
Because of the growing strength of #MeToo, venture capitalists and investors, concerned about the effect on their bottom line, “will now care much more about how companies handle harassment complaints,” she reported.
Prof. McDonald said it remained to be seen whether remedial actions would extend from famous celebrities to less powerful, vulnerable women including “women working in small businesses where the harasser is also the boss; the low paid and insecurely employed; rural and remote women who may have limited employment opportunities; migrants or those who speak English as a second language; and young and/or disabled women all report high levels of sexual harassment.”
Simply firing the harassers is not enough. “Organizations, equal opportunity commissions and courts must create victim-centric complaint processes to address the chronic underreporting of gender-based violence,” Prof. McDonald noted, adding that underreporting happens because the targets of sexual harassment accurately anticipate “the overwhelmingly negative consequences of making a complaint.”
Prof. McDonald’s research revealed that #MeToo had exposed how predators in senior, influential positions in all areas of society—politics, business, education, charities, the arts, sport and religion—have exercised sexual power to harass, humiliate, discriminate, marginalize and bully. By revealing that abuse goes all the way to the top of institutions, #MeToo broke the longstanding, deafening silence about harassment and sexual assault in the workplace.
“Traditionally, employers have been reluctant to penalize high-profile, repeat harassers because it was expensive and inconvenient to replace them,” she said. “They were concerned the harasser could sue for breach of contract, or unfair dismissal and defamation,” adding that non-disclosure agreements “allowed the perpetrators of sexual violence to keep their reputations intact and arguably, to reoffend.”
Prof. McDonald’s research also revealed that “the #MeToo movement has acknowledged that sexual harassment also affects men. People who are gay, transgender or bisexual are disproportionately targeted. For example, a large survey of [police in the Australian state of Victoria] found that gay men were six times more likely than heterosexual men to experience sexual harassment,” adding the harassment “was primarily perpetrated by other men.”
Jonathan Renwick is a reporter for Business News Australia.
Denying the Truth
Based in part on thousands of individual narratives, Prof. Paula McDonald’s research uncovered how #MeToo helped to identify the range of tactics harassers employ including:
- Cover-up – Where a harasser knows it is difficult to prove conduct that occurs in secret or behind closed doors, even where there is a consensus that the harasser is an “office sleaze bag.”
- Devaluing – Includes undermining the credibility of the target, challenging their moral worth, or claiming the target’s accusation are vexatious; characterizing targets as sluts or promiscuous; and alleging poor work performance.
- Reframing – Describing their actions as friendly, innocent or misunderstood, including “the kiss was innocent” or “the harm was trivial.” They even rely on the widely discredited trope, “boys will be boys.”
- Leveraging – Manipulating official channels, including obstructing or delaying investigations, and harassers enlisting the support of senior managers to defend them.
- Intimidation – Harassers orchestrating the dismissal of a complainant, including employing physical threats, or threats of demotion or a reduction in work hours.