What sparked #MeToo's momentum? Women speaking out enmasse.

What sparked #MeToo’s momentum? Women speaking out en masse.

good intentions
This week marks the one-year anniversary of the latest iteration of #MeToo, which was first initiated by activist Tarana Burke in 2006.

It is not one year since women began speaking out about sexual harassment: many women have been speaking out for decades, even when it seemed like no one was listening. Even when many who did listen simply refused to believe and resorted to victim blaming to deflect, derail, dismiss and silence women.

But, today, in the wake of #MeToo, it does seem like we have everyone’s attention.

How can we leverage this unprecedented moment when it seems the collective power of women voices has the capacity to usher in great change?

How do we leverage the power of women’s voices, while also recognizing the risks women take in speaking out and endeavouring to honour that risk by ensuring that “this time” is well and truly different?

I’m sure some of you – myself included – have had a certain sense of deja vu – we’ve been here before.

But today, women in large numbers are saying “enough is enough”.

Now is the time to finally end the sexual harassment and assault we now know is endemic in our workplaces.

The statistics from the Australian Human Rights Commission’s survey into sexual harassment released a little over a month ago threw the issue, once again, into focus:

• There has been a “marked” increase in rates of sexual harassment –up from 1 in 4 people over the last five years when the last survey was conducted in 2012 to 1 in 3 people in 2018.

• The survey again confirmed that women are more likely than men to experience sexual harassment.

• Further, those from culturally diverse communities, having a disability, being LGBTQI or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, were likely to experience even higher rates of sexual harassment.

• There were indications that those who make a complaint are now more likely to experience victimisation as a result.

• The most common negative consequence of workplace harassment was an impact on the victim’s mental health or stress, with 36 percent of respondents reporting it had most affected them in these ways.

• And the results of the survey also bust the myth of the “confused man” – one of the more, let’s put it mildly “amusing phenomenons to emerge from the #MeToo era — who claims the ‘”new” vigilance against sexual harassment and assault in our workplaces has left him concerned he will be persecuted for “accidentally” putting a foot wrong at the company Christmas party.

• The survey clearly indicated that the majority of sexual harassment is part of a common, ongoing, and habitual culture of harassment.

• According to the survey, half of people who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace consider this type of behaviour “common” in their workplace, 2 in 5 were aware of someone else in their workplace being harassed in the same way, and more than half of victims said the harassment was ongoing and continued for more than 6 months.

It’s worth noting that the Human Rights Commission has published three previous surveys in the last 15 years, all indicating unacceptably high rates of sexual harassment and victimisation for making a claim.

Not to take away from the quality and importance of these previous surveys and their accompanying recommendations, but it’s clear they didn’t manage to set the world right, nor did three decades of legislation outlawing harassment.

Not here in Australia, and not in so many other workplaces around the world.

It is now incumbent upon all of us who have the power to bring about real and lasting change to honour the trust of those who spoke out as part of #MeToo, their individual stories giving shocking life to this issue in a way statistics never truly can and highlighting the work still to be done.

As someone who has worked towards gender equality as an activist and writer for nearly twenty years, I can say that I have personally never seen anything quite like this.

This past year has been different ushering in an unprecedented wave of momentum.

Before #MeToo, a comfortable assumption had settled in that things had improved.

Many – some feminists included – wanted to believe this was a “thing of the past” — a kind of holdover from 1970’s feminism and “Benny Hill” or “Mad Men” type workplaces.

So what sparked this? What changed? What led to this monumental shift we all hope will prompt systemic change?

The answer is women’s voices. Women speaking out.

Women brave enough to speak to reporters at both the New York Times and the New Yorker about their experiences with Harvey Weinstein.

Before that, women coming forward in ever greater numbers to tell the world about alleged serial predators like Bill Cosby, Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump.

Women sharing their stories of sexual harassment and assault under the uniting banner of #MeToo in the days and months following the shocking revelations of Weinstein’s decades of unchecked abuse.

Facebook released statistics showing that in less than 24 hours, 4.7 million people worldwide engaged in the conversation, with more than 12 million posts, comments and reactions.

#MeToo was the genesis of a worldwide movement.

In America women joined together under the uniting banner of #TimesUp to create an organisation that could leverage that momentum and serve as a focal point for continued action, delivering practical support to those experiencing sexual harassment and assault at work.

Here in Australia, more than two thousand women and some men contacted journalist and NOW co-founder Tracey Spicer after she sent out that, now famous, tweet – exactly a year ago today.

NOW’s diverse founding steering committee and board members came together, looked to #TimeUp for inspiration and established NOW Australia in March of this year as an Australian outpost of this global movement, with similar aims and objectives.

In their recent book Women Kind, Catherine Fox and Dr. Kirstin Ferguson talked about the power of women’s networks and “outbreaks of good old-fashioned solidarity”.

2018 has certainly been a year marked by “outbreaks of good old-fashioned solidarity” and women banding together for change.

Millions of women are doing this.

Millions of women around the world.

This has helped to make a difference.

Earlier this year, Kate Jenkins, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner, announced Australia’s (and the world’s first) national inquiry into sexual harassment, which we hope will precipitate significant legal and cultural change when the recommendations are made next year.

This year, marking one year since #MeToo the momentum is irrefutable.

But how do we go forward? How do we learn the lessons of the past and chart a new course into the future, one that continues to respectfully put women’s voices, and their experiences, at the centre of the debate, leading change?

And why is it so important for us to start as we mean to go?

I know when all this started a year ago many had mixed feelings and concerns about the ethics involved in women sharing their experiences of trauma.
When the hashtag first went viral, there was much debate.
To #MeToo or not to #MeToo was the question.

Some of the criticism was downright silly, if not extremely offensive, including the assertion that #MeToo provided an opportunity for “marginal characters in these dramas to jump on the sympathy bandwagon” and create some kind of moral equivalence between “minor” transgressions vs. “real” assault.

There has also been the inevitable backlash: #MeToo has gone “too far”.

I’m certain that the purveyors of such comments will find themselves on the wrong side of history.

Others raised very valid concerns about #MeToo’s capacity to re-traumatize and asked whether women were being properly supported.

Some feminists asked whether women should “have to” share their traumatic stories (yet again) in order to prove how “bad” the problem was.

Many, after all, had been speaking out for decades. They were simply ignored.
As many deadpanned on social media, the magnitude of the response had come as no surprise to literally every woman. Try finding one who says #NotMe.

But for me to #MeToo or not to #MeToo came down to the following:

Many women were visibly overcoming decades of conditioning to question or suppress their experiences of assault and sexual harassment – the tendency to second guess serving as sexual harassment and assault’s ever-present sidekick.

We could see that theme in the accounts of many of the actresses who first come forward to talk about Harvey Weinstein.

“I did not know that there was a world in which anybody would care about my experience with him”, wrote Lupita Nyong’o.

“I never talked about these things publicly because, as a woman, it has always felt like I may as well have been talking about the weather,” wrote Molly Ringwald.

#MeToo provided women both solidarity and protection in numbers, but also a chance to go on the record and be heard and believed, many for the first time.

For many women who have experienced trauma, being heard and believed is a powerful experience and an important part of their recovery.

But, perhaps most importantly, the context for #MeToo is clearly different. We as a society now seem increasingly prepared to do something with these disclosures — working towards real and lasting change.

Many came forward now, not because they felt pressured to “prove” how bad the problem was, but because if they had come forward earlier, they would have been dismissed or punished (research shows 75 percent of women who report harassment experience retaliation).

Many spoke out now because they hoped things were different. They felt the time was right.

We must trust their judgement, while proving ourselves — as journalists, as policy makers, as employers, as anyone entrusted with these stories and the capacity to do something — worthy of that trust.

When all this first started, I was struck by the revelation from Rose McGowan that she had been talking to a reporter at the New York Times for years, but she wouldn’t let him break her story.

She kept saying, “It’s not time yet, the public consciousness is not there yet”. McGowan and many other women clearly noticed something had changed.

That insight from McGowan makes me feel hopeful, but not hopeful in the passive sense, hopeful in the active sense.

As Rebecca Solnit has said, “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency.”

To my mind and to those of us at NOW Australia, the millions of women speaking out as part of #MeToo have wagered on the power of their experiences, the power of their voices to serve as that kind ax that breaks down doors.

They hope they will be listened to; hope they will be believed; hope perpetrators will be held to account; hope things will finally change.

#MeToo is an exercise in the kind of hope that breaks down doors.

This is an edited version of a speech given at the National Council of Women Conference in Canberra this week. 

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox