If you’re on social media you’ve probably come across the phrase #MeToo at some point in recent months. It’s become the rally cry of the recent movement exposing incidents of sexual harassment and abuse, and uniting victims through their shared experiences.
The phrase was coined in 2006 by civil rights and social activist Tarana Burke as a way to raise awareness about sexual abuse and promote “empowerment through empathy” for victims. The original campaign focused particularly on women of color living in underprivileged communities. The goal was to unite victims and show them that they are not alone and should not be ashamed.
This past fall the phrase #MeToo experienced a resurgence when, amid the Harvey Weinstein scandal, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too.’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
Overnight the #MeToo movement gained momentum through the power of social media. Millions upon millions responded to Milano’s tweet with the #MeToo hashtag sharing their own stories. These experiences were not limited to women –as sexual harassment and abuse can happen to people of any gender– and many men also participated in the #MeToo trend sharing their own experiences with harassment and abuse.
Following Milano’s tweet, many other celebrities soon spoke out, naming their abusers and calling out high profile individuals such as actors James Franco and Kevin Spacey; directors Morgan Spurlock, Brett Ratner, and Roman Polanski; comedian Louis C.K., news anchor Matt Lauer, and many more. For people everywhere it became monumental turning point– seeing glamorous celebrities step forward about their experiences encouraged others from all backgrounds to open up too and soon the movement spread beyond Hollywood to every industry.
Why is is important to keep the #MeToo momentum
Broadly #MeToo is about empowering individuals to speak up, give them a voice, and reject the pervasive silence surrounding sexual abuse and harassment that has existed for decades. While harassment can occur anywhere, combating sexual harassment in the workplace has become one of the movement’s chief goals.
Since October, #MeToo has reached every industry and institution and is now challenging them to reevaluate how they handle harassment. Some changes have already been put into action such as companies requiring mandatory sexual harassment training for employees, reevaluating harassment policies, and enlisting neutral third parties to intervene in harassment cases.
Recently in Chicago an ordinance was passed to protect hotel workers– who often work alone in hotel rooms and are at risk of assault from guests– by providing them with portable panic buttons. Other states such as Arizona are working to pass legislation that would void existing nondisclosure agreements that currently prevent victims from speaking out about harassment.
The movement has also sparked important conversations within the workplace about what is and isn’t appropriate behavior. While many understand broadly what constitutes as harassment, there is some confusion amongst others. Individuals have different perspectives and often what one person views as harmless another sees as harassment.
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Setbacks of the #MeToo movement
Still, despite progress, there have been some setbacks. Some men now feel anxious around their female coworkers, and fearing their actions will be misconstrued have begun avoiding their female coworkers entirely and further isolating them. Other men in mentorship and managerial positions have become reluctant to take on women as mentees.
A recent survey by the Lean In initiative found that since the spread of the #Me Too movement, “the number of male managers who are uncomfortable mentoring women has more than tripled from 5% to 16%. This means that 1 in 6 male managers may now hesitate to mentor a woman.” In addition, only half the women and men who participated in the survey reported seeing changes in their companies since #Me Too. There is clearly still much work to be done in “the culture of silence.”
So what can companies and individuals do? #Me Too has helped bring to light these serious issues occurring in the workplace that have long been ignored or hidden. It’s also brought a sense of heightened anxiety.
People, especially men, fear they may be wrongfully accused of misconduct and are now anxious of their every move. In some ways, this fear is good because it keeps people aware of their actions. But this tension could lead to further stress in the workplace. So what are some solutions? Can men and women work together harmoniously?
Keep in mind these easy habits
- Be respectful toward your colleagues.
Seems simple enough. Think back to kindergarten: ‘Keep your hands to yourself.’ ‘If you have nothing nice to say, don’t say anything at all.’ Be thoughtful. Respect others’ personal space. Choose words wisely.
- Keep a dialogue open.
Formal training and education about harassment is important, but so are ongoing conversations about these issues, both formal and informal. Companies should strive to create safe, comfortable environments where these conversations can happen and men and women need to work together to effectively communicate their concerns. For men, instead of isolating their female coworkers, they should listen to them, support them, and use their male privilege to boost female voices.
- Hold others accountable for their actions.
“Men and women who see harassment in action should one, let the victim know they are supported …and two, don’t tolerate it. Full stop.” –Tarana Burke
Don’t let inappropriate behavior become normalized. As a bystander it’s important to speak out against inappropriate behavior. Don’t just laugh along uncomfortably at a crude joke for fear of speaking out. Let your fellow coworker know that what they’re doing is not okay. If people know they won’t be able to get away with it, they’re less likely to continue with inappropriate behavior.
- Specify boundaries and definitions of harassment.
On both a company-wide level and a personal level it’s important to have a clear idea of what the boundaries are. Companies should not only reevaluate their policies, but frequently remind their employees of these policies. Likewise, individuals should be vocal about their personal boundaries so there are no misunderstandings. If you’re not a hugger, let people know.
- Stay informed.
Education is key. People fear what they don’t understand. Many fear false allegations but statistics show that false allegations are not as prevalent as people think. Studies conducted throughout the U.S. and Europe show that only around 2% – 6% of sexual harassment allegations have been found to be false. It’s also important to note that a number of these “false” allegations were only declared so because not enough evidence could be produced in court to confirm they were true, so numbers are like smaller for truly false allegations.
There is hope for the future
Coming forward about these experiences is difficult and there has been a culture of silence surrounding assault that is only just being broken. It’s important to listen and believe those speaking out.
Still, the future is hopeful. A shift in our culture is happening. There is great opportunity for change. Moving forward we should all remain mindful of our words and actions and strive to create and maintain safe, productive work environments for all.