#MeToo at two: how far have we come?

Alyssa Milano used #MeToo in a tweet in October 2017. Photo: Image Press Agency/SIPA USA/PA Images

The #MeToo movement is two years old this week and has been influential in altering behaviour, bolstering equality and respect in the workplace. But is it being sufficiently supported by legislators and courts, asks Adam McCulloch?

Two years ago, actor Alyssa Milano popularised the #MeToo movement on Twitter, recycling the name of a movement highlighting sexual assault founded by civil rights activist Tarana Burke in 2006.

Milano’s use of the phrase was in response to the allegations of rape and other offences being levelled against film producer Harvey Weinstein, in the wake of his expulsion from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. It has marked a sea change in attitudes, giving more women the confidence to speak up in the belief they could effect change, be listened to and attain a measure of justice.

Milano and Burke were honoured for their work by Time Magazine becoming Persons of the Year for 2017 together with other campaigners, under the blanket title of the Silence Breakers.

The social media based campaign soon spawned Time’s Up, whose mission statement takes the issue of sexual harassment pointedly out of the celebrity realm and into offices, boardrooms and the shop floor, stating: “The clock has run out on sexual assault, harassment and inequality in the workplace. It’s time to do something about it.”

But has the onus to act fallen mainly on individual women and campaign groups, or has there been back-up from policy makers and legislation?

The UK government has made encouraging noises, but as Brexit has dominated the parliamentary agenda, very little or no law-making has taken place.

As Sam Smethers, chief executive of the Fawcett Society tells Personnel Today: “Two years since the outpouring of #MeToo sexual harassment testimonies we have yet to see the law change. We need to protect women from sexual harassment from co-workers, clients and customers. We also need to go further and introduce a duty on employers to prevent harassment.

“My fear is that the government may row back on their commitment to legislate. Women will not forgive them if they leave this issue unaddressed.”

Similarly, the use of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) to silence those with experience of harassment appeared to be on track to being outlawed earlier this year. In July business minister Kelly Tolhurst announced plans for laws that prohibit confidentiality clauses being used to prevent individuals from disclosing information to the police, health and social workers, and lawyers. Any clauses that breached the new law, said Tolhurst, would render the NDA void.

Tolhurst appeared to have met the recommendations of MPs on the House of Commons women and equality committee, who wrote in their report on the issue last March: “It is particularly worrying that secrecy about allegations of unlawful discrimination are being traded for things that employers should be providing as a matter of course, such as references and remedial action to tackle discrimination.”

We also need to go further and introduce a duty on employers to prevent harassment. My fear is that the government may row back on their commitment to legislate. Women will not forgive them if they leave this issue unaddressed” – Sam Smethers, Fawcett Society

The measures also aimed to address what the committee called “the failure of the employment tribunal system to ensure all employees who have experienced discrimination have a meaningful route of redress”.

Rebecca Hilsenrath, chief executive of the Equality & Human Rights Commission, greeted the proposed law change: “This new legislation will help to end ambiguity about employees’ rights and stop the misuse of NDAs to protect corporate and personal reputations and obstruct justice.”

But despite a consultation this summer, the legislative process towards amending the law on sexual harassment in the workplace has yet to begin and there was no mention of NDAs in the Queen’s Speech yesterday.

We need to protect women from sexual harassment from co-workers, clients and customers. We also need to go further and introduce a duty on employers to prevent harassment” – Sam Smethers, Fawcett Society

It could be though that attitudes, rather than law, will prove the wellspring of change. For example, until January 2018 there was little furore over the annual men-only Presidents’ Club Dinner charity event held at the Dorchester Hotel. But in the wake of the MeToo and Time’s Up movements’ creation, the idea that young female hostesses working for £150 and employed by an agency could be groped and subject to lewd suggestions by elite business and political figures was suddenly anathema.

It was only in 2018 that the media paid attention and investigated proceedings. Caroline Dandridge, whose Artista agency hired many of the young women, was well aware of the evening’s flavour, telling the women that the men were likely to be “pissed and annoying”.

Dandridge later signed a legal agreement with the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) promising to never again expose staff to such “deplorable” working conditions. The Presidents’ Dinner itself was scrapped after the revelations.

Tellingly, the event’s compere, TV personality Jonny Gould, greeted guests with a welcome to the world’s “most un-PC event”. The allegation that MeToo is overly PC is often used by its detractors and detrimental use of the term “PC” is a common meme.

The revulsion towards the men’s behaviour at the event was best summed up by then Liberal Democrat deputy leader Jo Swinson: “More than 300 rich businessmen were perfectly happy to attend such an event, which shows the rotten, sexist culture still alive and kicking in parts of the business community. Time’s up on this crap.”

Vivienne Artz, president of the Women in Banking & Finance network, told the Guardian that the dismantling of the Presidents Club was a sign of progress and credited the #MeToo movement for empowering women to call out past behaviour. She also noted that the Financial Conduct Authority had confirmed in a letter to Women and Equalities Select Committee chair Maria Miller that sexual harassment is considered misconduct under City regulations. She added this was a sign of real progress since the 1980s when the organisation was first formed.

But women are still experiencing routine harassment in the City and beyond, with the most recent high-profile case involving a BNP Paribas financial product manager, Stacey Macken, showing that sexual discrimination remains a problem in London’s financial district. She claimed she was subject to persistent harassment, being subject to crude stories and being rudely dismissed by bosses, as well as a prank that involved leaving a witch’s hat on her desk. These allegations were dismissed, but Macken won her claim for unequal pay.

Earlier this month, more than 100 female business leaders launched #MeTooPay with a focus on closing the gender pay gap and ending unequal pay practices, rather than sexual harassment.

The lack of legislation and use of confidentiality clauses means that the bravery of individual women, such as Macken and Nathalie Abildgaard who won a £270,000 settlement from investment firm IFM after alleged unwanted sexual advances from an executive director, are key to harnessing the power of MeToo to force change. But further recent cases at institutions such as Lloyd’s of London where one in 12 workers say they have witnessed sexual harassment at work, show the movement must keep up the pressure. Lloyd’s has stepped up efforts to encourage cultural change.

Sexual harassment is only part of the equation, as Macken’s case showed. It is underpinned by the failure to value women’s contribution in terms of pay and promotion – the other main target of MeToo. With only half of firms last year improving their pay gap, it is clear that progress will be slow in achieving parity although tribunal judgments such as Macken’s may accelerate improvement.

The scale of the task facing MeToo is highlighted by a report to mark the United Nations’ International Day of the Girl Child. A survey carried out by charity Plan International and embedded in the report found that one in six girls and young women in Britain has not attended school or their workplace in the past year because they were anxious about the way they look.

Rose Caldwell, the charity’s CEO, says the figures show that fears about image were “having a frightening impact on girls’ futures, affecting their ability to take advantage of opportunities and, in some cases, preventing them from their basic rights to access education and earn a living.”

Two years on from MeToo’s inception it is clear that there is more to effecting change than a hashtag; the campaign to alter the chemistry of workplaces, achieve equality, counter those who condemn it for hosting supposed PC attitudes, and protect the rights of all women will have to be sustained on a broad front.

Or, as Women’s Equality Party leader Mandu Reid recently put it: “The viral moment of #MeToo was base camp in the mountain we have to climb. Outrage is not the same as action or justice. For #MeToo to have a legacy 30 years from now, we need it to translate into the business and political spheres through hard, deliberate work.”

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