Women must use #MeToo momentum to change their workplaces

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Illustration: Michael Mucci.

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I tried to report a senior colleague for sexual harassment in 1983. I was young, it was pretty much my first year in the job. It went nowhere. I wasn’t his actual physical target – but what he did was to demean and degrade all the young women who rallied around the woman he hunted with personal remarks we all found hugely hurtful and insulting. He did his very best to undermine my career but I soldiered on. I think he’s left journalism now, leaving broken women behind him.

Since that time, 34 years ago, there have been so many occasions. And the older I get, the more depressed I become about the inevitable outcome. When you report harassment, sexual or otherwise, to a superior in a workplace, the likely response is something like: are you sure? That seems out of character for (insert male name here). And even: why should anyone believe you? The worst response: tell it to HR. Human resources – where nothing ever happens to helps complainants except perhaps a suggestion to call the employee support scheme.


Hollywood director donates, while another is accused

Director Kevin Smith donates to Women in Film, while director James Toback is accused of many sexual assaults.

Just once, about 12 years ago, did I have any success in reporting a colleague. It turned out several others had reported him, too. Lucky for us, he wasn’t a charming sleazebag; just a regular run-of-the-mill sleazebag who wasn’t very good at his job. If he’d been good at his job, maybe it wouldn’t have been so easy to convince management he had to go.

I spoke to a very old friend who had been very senior in the media. Had any woman ever gone to him to report sexual harassment? Yes, they had. But when push came to shove, “senior management had no appetite for a fight”, none at all. He could only think of one case, maybe two, where he had been successful in removing a sexual harasser from the workplace.

And I rang some women who were around at the time who were victims of the arsehole. One started crying when I mentioned his name. It was not just the physical violation, it was that bitter taste of powerlessness, a reminder of what it was like to feel utterly alone. Another remembered coordinating visits to the toilet or coordinating meal runs, so that no woman would be left alone with this man.

We must now sew these stories together to build a narrative to propel change: a successful shift in workplace culture. Men must be taught to recognise they no longer have droit du seigneur and that their seniority doesn’t bring with it the spoils of a gender war. I am grateful for the outpouring of stories and the generosity of women who are sharing their experiences – but that is not enough. All the #MeToos, the recognition that this happens to every woman in one way or another, none of that will have any effect unless we work collectively to make change happen.

We must start building our own action groups within organisations and companies. Of course, if you belong to a union, you are way ahead. Unions have long met with management without the dead hand of HR representatives in the room. (A brief reminder: an HR person did the dirty on Amy Taeuber, and HR is rarely on the complainant’s side. The accused must be treated justly but let’s make sure the complainant is also treated justly, instead of cast aside or sacrificed on the altar of male entitlement.)

Don’t leave it to someone else to be active. If you are in any organisation or company, start a group yourself. Focus on all the inequality in the workplace – sexual harassment will be part of that but so will unequal pay for equal work. Women not getting promotions? That will be part of it, too. Build on your understanding of your company’s financial state so you can’t be bamboozled with the vacuity which Channel Nine has displayed since it lost Lisa Wilkinson. And build your numbers. Make sure you include women of all levels and all backgrounds. You can’t make change without solidarity, and solidarity needs to be about more than people just like you.

Make it public. Signs in the lifts. Regular meeting times. Build an alliance with people in senior management who believe in this process. Ask for input – but don’t necessarily take it all on-board. Managers have their own agenda and it might not necessarily be about improving equality.

The good news about the number of stories from women who have experienced sexual harassment at work is that it moves from “she said, he said” to 20 women with the same story about the same man. The sheer numbers make it hard for perpetrators to deny.

But we need to move on from making perpetrators the focus. The best possible outcome of the avalanche of #MeToo stories is that, in 10 years’ time, women can say, in all honesty, #NotMe. That can only happen if we work together.

Build a group in your organisation where women can talk freely about their experiences but also about what the prospects are for real change. Make the stories count.

Jenna Price is an academic at the University of Technology Sydney and a Fairfax Media columnist.

Twitter: @JennaPrice

Facebook: JennaPriceJournalist

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