#MeToo and the Weinstein verdict: What now for working women?

High-profile verdict spotlights how much needs to be done to root out sexual harassment in workplaces.

Me Too
Ambra Battilana Gutierrez, one of Weinstein's accusers, speaks with media outside New York's supreme court on February 24, the day the former movie mogul was convicted of rape and a criminal sexual act [Victor J Blue/Bloomberg]

New York, United States – Harvey Weinstein, the once all-powerful Hollywood mogul making and breaking women’s careers, now faces up to 29 years behind bars after being convicted this week of sexual assault and third-degree rape.

Dozens of women who accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct, predatory behavior and rape have yet to have their day in court. Still Monday’s verdict serves as a turning point in a scandal that blew the lid off of sexual harassment in US workplaces and propelled the #MeToo movement to a global stage. 

#MeToo put on blast predatory gatekeepers in media, sports and entertainment by bypassing traditional streams of reporting sexual misconduct and harassment. It inspired millions of women to share their own experiences on social media. 

While the movement ignited an international conversation, gender experts say the Weinstein scandal and conviction shows just how much work needs to be done to change cultural norms that have for decades brushed off sexual harassment allegations and the women who voice them.

“I regret that it took so many women to hold one man to account,” Purna Sen, UN-Women’s spokesperson on Addressing Sexual Harassment and Other Forms of Discrimination, told Al Jazeera. 

“This was a case of 90-or-so ‘she said’s to one ‘he said’. Women have had a hell of a journey to go through to be seen as credible as men,” Sen added.  

#MeToo by the numbers

Some 38 percent of US women reported experiencing sexual harassment at work, according to a 2019 joint study led by UCSD Center on Gender Equity and Health and Stop Street Harassment.  

The same study found that although 81 percent of women and 43 percent of men reported experiencing sexual harassment and/or assault over their lifetime, only 1.9 percent of men and 0.4 percent of women reported ever being accused of sexually harassing or assaulting someone. 

A demonstrator in Tokyo, Japan holding a ‘#MeToo’ sign – the movement began in the US but quickly united millions around the globe against sexual harassment and violence [File: Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg] 

There is evidence that attitudes may be changing however. UCSD Center researchers found that when high-profile men are accused of sexual harassment or assault, 43 percent of women and 40 percent of men believed the allegations to be true.  

“The #MeToo movement has raised awareness over the power imbalances that exist in too many workplaces. We’re finally getting real recognition of the issue out in the open,” Lorraine Hariton, Catalyst CEO, a nonprofit working with 800 companies to boost women into leadership, told Al Jazeera.

But capitalizing on that recognition remains challenging. 

‘Paying the price of being abused’

Despite its prevalence, sexual harassment at work is rarely reported and when it is the alleged victim is likely to face a backlash and reprisals. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), the US agency tasked with handling sexual discrimination cases, 72 percent of sexual harassment charges in 2018 included allegations of retaliation. 

“How we see sexual harassment and how we shy away from holding harassers to account is embedded in workplace culture,” Sen from UN-Women told Al Jazeera.

“Unfortunately, it is still too common that women who report are viewed as malicious and there is a common perception of ‘he said this’ and ‘she said that'”.

Yet, not speaking out and reporting abuse can damage victims’ financial lives by discouraging them from pursuing leadership and managerial roles – stunting their economic advancement and development.


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“If a workplace doesn’t take women seriously then women do not have access to justice. Many end up leaving their occupation or jobs and that is when they are economically paying the price of being abused,” said Sen.

Businesses also pay the price of sexual harassment in the form of increased sick leave and turnover rates of employees, damaged morale and productivity, increased risk of litigation and reputational damage. 

“Cultural change is critical,” said Hariton. “What was OK behaviour 50, or even 30 years ago, is not OK behaviour now. There are cultures that enabled this to happen and that is changing.”

Putting women in their place

A major obstacle in the way of that cultural shift is the persisting gender gap in high-level positions at companies and organizations. In other words, the higher up the corporate ladder the less women there are. 

In S&P 500 companies, women comprise almost 45 percent of total employees but occupy just 26 percent of senior-level managerial positions, 21 percent of board seats and 5 percent of CEO posts, according to Catalyst

The situation is far worse for minority women, who occupy 6 percent of board seats in the top 200 companies in the S&P 500. 

The good news, according to Catalyst, is that companies are opening themselves up to recognizing that diverse boards with women – and women of colour – provide a competitive edge, help mitigate risk, increase innovation and attract customers who want to feel represented. 

But even power at work does not insulate women from sexual harassment. A Daedalus study found that women in leadership roles are more likely to be sexually harassed than other female employees because “consciously or subconsciously, the harasser may want to ‘put women in their place'”. 

MeToo Hollywood
A November 2017 protest for survivors of sexual assault in Hollywood, California [Lucy Nicholson/Reuters] 

A law does not necessarily mean protection

Sexual harassment has not only been “normalized, justified and made invisible” it is pervasive in corridors of power all over the world, according to a UN-Women report

Nearly a quarter of female parliamentarians in 40 European countries reported experiencing sexual violence on the job. And a commission looking into allegations of sexual harassment in the African Union found that women were being exploited for “sex in exchange for jobs”. 

Public awareness is spreading though. UN Women estimates that between 2016 and 2019 #MeToo and its global sister hashtags made over 36 million social media impressions. 

And while the number of sexual harassment allegations has fallen compared with when Weinstein was first accused, it is still higher than before #MeToo began, according to crisis and reputation strategy firm Temin & Co.

“#MeToo 2.0” should at least give women the tools to deal with abuse, the company’s founder Davia Temin told Al Jazeera.

“Women, when it happens, document it, tell your friends, or a lawyer because when allegations come to light you are going to be asked for proof,” Temin added.

Change is being made – on paper, at least. Since #MeToo kicked off in 2017, Afghanistan, Iraq, Zambia, Cameroon, Chad, Gabon, Guinea, France, Georgia and Chile have either introduced or amended laws on sexual harassment.

But as the experience of the US shows merely making laws is not enough when powerful predators and the cultures that enable them enjoy impunity. 

“As long as power is unchecked and men mostly occupy those positions of power then men will be protected,” Sen said.

Source: Al Jazeera