Accusations of harassment have felled some powerful men
But will that lead to a permanent change in behaviour?
FOR those who care about a woman’s right to lead her life unmolested, 2017 began badly. A man accused of groping several women took office in the White House. (Donald Trump dismissed the allegations—as well as a tape of him boasting about his behaviour, which he called mere “locker-room talk”.)
The year is ending somewhat better. In October Harvey Weinstein, a film producer, was accused of having spent decades harassing and assaulting actresses, and using his exalted position in Hollywood to intimidate and silence anyone who got in his way. He was forced out of the firm he co-founded and is being investigated by police.Further accusations against other powerful men followed, spreading beyond Hollywood into politics, journalism and the tech industry. Dozens were sacked or stepped down. Millions of women were inspired to share their own experience of harassment, using the hashtags #MeToo, #YoTambien, #BalanceTonPorc and soon. In a fitting end to a year of comeuppances, Roy Moore, who is accused of harassment and assault by several women, including one who was 14 at the time, became the first Republican to be defeated in a Senate race in Alabama since1992.
unmolested: not pestered or molested; left in peace
exalted: (of a person or their rank or status) placed at a high or powerful level; held in high regard
comeuppance: punishment that someone deserves to receive
#MeToo drew attention to a facet of women’s lives to which men had been comfortably oblivious. It showed how common harassment is, and how harmful to women’s careers. But the lesson from big social changes in the past is that more needs to happen if 2017 is to mark a permanent shift in behaviour. Even now, Hurricane Harvey could blow itself out and women at work once again be assailed by all the old abuses.
Winds of change
If history is a guide, a new social norm takes root when a series of smaller changes prepare the ground (see article).First an event galvanises a group of evangelists to throw light on an injustice that is acknowledged only in the shadows—the extent of domestic abuse, say, or the fact that gay people are accused of threatening public morals when they lead perfectly ordinary lives. Sometimes new attitudes bring about a change in the law, as with the introduction of Prohibition and the reform of civil rights in America. But the new law will stick only so long as large parts of the population embrace it. Prohibition failed because too few Americans agreed that all drinking was debauched. People also need to see that transgressions arepunished—either directly by the police, or, more often, by the mass of bystanders who choose to act either as enforcers or enablers. Most countries where female genital mutilation is common have laws against it. They are simply not enforced.
assail: to attack or criticize someone or something in a violent or angry way
galvanize: to cause people to become so excited or concerned about an issue, idea, etc. that they want to do something about it
debauched: behaving in an immoral way that involves drinking too much alcohol, taking drugs, having sex with many people, etc.
The signs are that the #MeToo movement has reached a delicate stage. The buffeting of the past few months has certainly been cathartic. It has also brought abusers in a bewildering range of industries kicking and screaming into the open. But the novelty of seeing famous men brought down will soon fade. Before that happens, both men and women need to come to a shared understanding of what sexual harassment is and what to do about it. If too many of them conclude that complaints are being exaggerated or exploited, they will not step in to stop backsliders. Minor transgressions will be allowed to carry on. That will make it more likely that rape and sexual assault go unpunished, too.
catharsis: the act or process of releasing a strong emotion (such as pity or fear) especially by expressing it in an art form
Start with what counts as harassment. Most people can see the harm in a man trading a promotion for sex, in sexual assault or in crude groping. The divisions start with unwanted propositions, leering, sexualised put-downs and the like, particularly by a man who is in a powerful position. What men try to laugh off as a compliment, or a joke, often feels like humiliation or bullying to women—and may well be intended as such. Accusations can cast a shadow over someone’s reputation, so the lack of clarity over what is appropriate and what is not can be unsettling. Men and women may wonder how they are supposed to know whether a flirtation will be welcomed or will be the prelude to a career-threatening exposure. A lack of due process only adds to the uncertainty.
Despite this absence of agreement, the evidence suggests that even less serious harassment causes harm. A study published in May, which followed the careers of a cohort of women in Minnesota, found that 11% had been harassed in some way in a single year.The victims went on to earn less than other women; of those who had been verbally abused repeatedly or physically touched at least once, 79% left the company within two years. That is not only wrong—in the way that all bullying is wrong—but also a waste of valuable talent.
Once there is a consensus about what is wrong and why, the new norms must be enforced. This is unlikely to involve a change in the law. Rape and sexual assault are already illegal; discrimination and bullying at work are subject to employment law.What needs to change is the tacit complicity of managers and staff. HR departments often defend the boss—especially if he is seen as a rainmaker, as Mr Weinstein was. Managers want to keep their star employees, even if they are toxic, because they appear to do so much for the team.
grope: to search for something by reaching or touching usually with your fingers in an awkward way
rainmaker: a person who generates income for a business or organization by brokering deals or attracting clients or funds.
Those may turn out to be false economies—certainly, they were with Mr Weinstein, who brought about the collapse of his firm. When you tot up the costs of all the women who leave, never join or work less well, the harassing star may not be so valuable after all.
A new agenda
To change behaviour, the new standards must be enforced. Women who make complaints should not be brushed off, bullied into dropping them or gagged by settlements with non-disclosure clauses—one idea is that firms should be obliged to tell investors how many such agreements they have made. The entertainment industry, which appears so far to be an arch-offender, needs to reflect hard about whether that is related to the lack of women producers and directors.
Ultimately, however, much of the task will fall to peers. Men need to be alert and to step in where necessary. Women need to stand up for each other. Too many people have been blind to a problem hidden in plain sight. But Hurricane Harvey has raged through 2017 and ignorance is no longer an excuse.
Lexile®Measure: 1100L - 1200L
Mean Sentence Length: 18.08
Mean Log Word Frequency: 3.41
Word Count: 940