The #metoo hashtag and the issue of sexual harassment

Kathryn Kendall, chief people officer, Benefex

If you’ve been online in the last week, you can’t have escaped the #metoo hashtag. A hashtag which is trending globally, used by individuals to identify themselves as victims of sexual harassment.

Contrary to what you might have thought, the #metoo campaign isn’t new. It was originated ten years ago by a black woman, Tarana Burke. As founder of the youth organisation Just Be Inc, Burke created the campaign as a grass-roots movement to reach survivors of sexual assault in underprivileged communities.

The hashtag has subsequently gone viral, thanks to the actress Alyssa Milano encouraging her followers to share their own experiences of sexual harassment, in the wake of the emerging allegations against Harvey Weinstein. The intention behind such a campaign? To show that sexual harassment is not the exception. That it is not unusual. That it is, regrettably, in the year 2017, still very much a norm within our societies.

So, what does this mean for the workplace? #metoo has brought hundreds and thousands of previously untold experiences of sexual harassment to light, many of which have taken place within supposedly professional environments. What now should senior decision makers and HR teams be looking to do?

The answer is no different to that for our wider society. We need to stop pretending that this is not happening. Sexual harassment and sexual discrimination is real, it is alive, and it is happening right now. And, unless we do not do something to change the status quo, it will remain that way for the foreseeable.

We all know that the statistics on diversity within our organisations don’t lie. There are numerous studies which prove the correlation between a more diverse workforce, greater productivity and improved profitability. And yet, every day that we choose to tolerate sexual harassment and discrimination within our offices and our factories is another day further away from us achieving true diversity.

The really critical point to make here is that the #metoo campaign is not a campaign for women. The fact that the majority of individuals sharing their experiences of harassment and discrimination are female merely reflects the prevalence of said behaviours to be inflicted on women rather than men, though this is not the case in all instances.

No, the #metoo campaign is a campaign for everyone. And the reason it is a campaign for everyone, that it has to be a campaign for everyone, is that by implying in any way that this is a problem for women to solve, that we suggest that this was a problem caused by women in the first place.

To wipe out discrimination and harassment within our workplaces, within our societies, we have to fundamentally change behaviours. And that means the behaviours displayed by absolutely everyone. There is a popular misconception that sexual harassment solely takes extreme forms, such as rape.

The reality is that we have a sliding scale. True, at one end there is rape and other acts of physical violence. Slightly further down we might have acts of direct discrimination and deliberate harassment.

But it is almost the bottom half of the scale which is most frightening, because it is there that we see the everyday behaviours. The behaviours which are so entrenched within our society that all of us – men and women – almost fail to notice them. If you want examples, take a look at the Everyday Sexism account on Twitter, which highlights just such behaviours.

Maybe it’s the meeting attended by five men and one woman, the latter who reported back that the most senior attendee present shook the hand of everyone in the room, other than hers. Did they do so deliberately? It’s unlikely. Did they do so all the same? Correct.

Perhaps it’s the conference, where the male attendees are introduced factually by their name and their job title; the woman instead as “the lovely Kate”, or “the beautiful Maria”. It’s highly unlikely that the introducer intended to sexually harass or distress anyone. They possibly even intended to bestow a clumsy compliment. Yet it’s a compliment which is inappropriate within the workplace, and in stark contrast to the way in which the men were introduced.

Or is it as simple as the inferred suggestion that your CEO/MD/CTO/other senior role must be male. “I’ll look forward to speaking with him.” It’s not intended to be discriminatory. It’s simply a reflection of the norm within organisations. There are more senior men in businesses than there are women. Yet, the more we allow it to be spoken of as though it was the norm, the more it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and the vicious circle continues.

So back to the point. What can we do. Well, we must create workplaces where employees feel safe. Where they feel safe, and where they feel listened to. Where they can call out any incidents of inappropriate behaviour, confident that it will not be used against them, and that appropriate action can be taken.

And then we must nurture a culture which means that every single person within our organisations knows that they have a responsibility to stamp out harassment and discrimination. No matter how minor. The vast majority of instances we all encounter will, thankfully, be minor. But it is the steady drip of minor occurrences which builds up to erode our diversity and equal opportunities agendas. It is the steady drip which is the reason we still see women outnumbered at chief executive level by 24 to 1. And it is that self-same steady drip of mere turns of phrase and unfortunate choices of word which means that occurrences at the other end of the scale are also still happening, in workplaces across the globe.

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#metoo is not a female problem. It is not someone else’s problem. It is our problem. Your problem. My problem. It is everyone’s problem. And if one good thing can come from the appalling and heartbreaking personal accounts which have been shared under the campaign, it is the collective outrage and desire for change which has been vocalised by so many. We can’t change the past, but we can resolve not to make this our future. We can refuse to accept this as the norm. We can all, every single one of us, ensure that a future generation of women never have to stand up and collectively state: #metoo.

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