'Me too.'
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'Me too.'

Stories/340 , Issues/Violence , Issues/Women
Sydney NSW, Australia
9th Aug 2018
'Me too.'
Tarana Burke and two words sparked a global movement, but how close are we really to eradicating sexual harassment in the workplace?

It's become the unofficial battle cry of women all over the world, unifying over acts that vary in scale but all fall under a common label - sexual harassment.

In the wake of allegations against some of the world's biggest names - Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and even Australia's own Don Burke - a story that began as a single leak has burst into a torrent.

The original article accusing Weinstein in the New York Times exposed over thirty years of allegations of sexual assault. Actresses such as Rose McGowan, Ashley Judd, Angelina Jolie and Gwyneth Paltrow have all taken a stand against the Hollywood producer. While their experiences were in different contexts and years apart, the women voiced one thing in common - that they feared speaking out could cost them their careers.

So they stayed silent.

It led to a social media cross-examination. Why hadn't these women spoken out before? Wasn't it 'convenient' they had all stood up at once, claiming incidents that had occurred years ago and apart? Where was the proof?

It's a common response to issue of sexual harassment, even in our 'progressive' day and age, when despite the fact sexual harassment policies have never been more rigorous, the problem still exists, whether it be from catcalls in the street, to abuse of power in the workplace. And then there is the constant pressure for a woman to have proof, hard evidence that can condemn an individual with no fear of repercussions.

Unfortunately, it took a Hollywood-scale scandal to bring the dark pocket of sexual harassment to light. And it is remains a small fragment of a big picture.

One in four Australian women have experienced sexual harassment with only one in five reporting the incident. Reasons for not reporting include women believing it wasn't 'serious enough', that the authorities wouldn't do anything about it, or that their offender wielded too much power.

Emma* worked for an international marketplace company's Sydney office, and was mocked on a daily basis from a department manager. "From the way I ate to the way I dressed, he would mock me. I used to tell him off, and then he would he would try to sweet-talk me," says Emma.

Fortunately, she was getting ready to leave the company to travel overseas. On the night of her farewell party, the manager approached her, already drunk. "Throughout the night he would place his hand on my lower back, whisper in my ear or kiss me on the cheek," says Emma.

"Each time I'd pull away and brush him off. I wanted nothing to do with him."

And he wasn't subtle about it. Even when one of Emma's friends came over and introduced himself as her boyfriend, within minutes he had pulled her aside to whisper in her ear. "Ditch him, you can do so much better?"

When he started grabbing her behind, the shock barely registered. "I was so uncomfortable, I just left. I left my own farewell party early, because I felt so uneasy."

Emma's friends encouraged her to speak to the company's HR department, which she only felt comfortable doing because she was leaving the company. And the country.

"I wouldn't have wanted it to get out, and to have to sit next to him every day. It would have been unbearable," she says.

"I messaged my supervisor letting him know what happened. Within days, I received an email from HR asking me to describe the events of the evening. They mustn't have thought it was enough, because nothing ever happened to him."

To rub salt into the wound, when the Harvey Weinstein allegations broke merely weeks later, the company sent around an email. 'If any staff members who are experiencing any form of sexual harassment are encouraged to report it to HR immediately. We take these accusations very seriously?'

Eye roll.

When it comes to standing up to sexual harassment, women are made to feel ashamed of themselves for not fighting hard enough. How are women supposed to fight when they have been conditioned to doubt themselves when incidents like this occur? There is one common underlying factor contributing to the reason women stay silent. Fear. Fear of being ostracized, victimized or ignored. Fear it will happen again. And the worst fear of all - the ugly lie we've been told through mainstream media to be the truth - that women are were 'asking for it'.

Women live in fear we won't be believed, that we will be slighted, mocked, put on trial. And it's a man's voice that runs through our head when we ask ourselves - 'is it worth it?'

Workplace psychologist Eliza Sutton says these are common reasons for women not speaking out against their perpetrators. "Another common factor is fear the authorities would do something about it - that they will have to put themselves through the trauma of retelling the incident and going on trial, with the risk that nothing will come from it.

"We can't fight it if we don't combat the problem."

Cassie* was part of major Australian consultancy firm's diversity program, a position that required an intense interview process and proof of her Indigenous heritage. Nearly five months after she had started, her managing supervisor left on maternity leave and replaced with a manager from another department. Her new supervisor started by undermining her previous supervisor, belittling her for leaving to have a baby.

"He was constantly saying that 'family women' got nowhere within the company, and nor should they,' says Cassie. "He would tell me if I wanted to get anywhere, I should 'keep it to myself'.

After a few weeks of similar comments, Cassie dreaded going in to work on Monday mornings, knowing she would be interrogated by her new supervisor about her weekend activities.

"He'd ask me if I had gone out drinking, if I'd met anyone, if I'd 'gotten any'," says Cassie. "He constantly asked me if I was 'into other Aboriginals'."

At first, Cassie tried ignoring him, not answering and focusing on her work. But he was persistent, and unyielding.

Eventually, a co-worker who had overhead one of her supervisor's comments encouraged her to report him to HR. The department assured her they would take action, but Cassie was never approached with an apology, or even an offer of mediation. "He probably got a stern talking to and that was it," says Cassie. The supervisor stayed another two months, and then moved on to a different department. "He ignored me until the day I left.

"I don't know what made me feel more worthless - the harassment, or being treated like I didn't exist."

Explains Sutton, "When a woman tries to counter, or attempts to take the case further, they are made to feel like it's their fault for not having a sense of humor, or told to 'lighten up'".

And then there are the questions a woman might ask herself: if I speak up, what will happen to me? Will he try and get my fired? Will he spread rumours to my co-workers that I'm a liar, causing me to lose their respect? Will he go as far as to threaten me?

Sometimes, it can feel like there is no way out. or many women, the logic of the consequences outweighs the desire for dignity. The need for secure employment, money, and glowing references to even consider the option of leaving in the future, all weigh on this decision.

Further, the long-term effects of harassment can be psychologically draining. Researchers have found people who have suffered from sexual harassment are less engaged at work, and can be susceptible to physical and mental illnesses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

So where does that leave us? Fighting sexual harassment doesn't just mean punishing the perpetrator, it means helping the victims. The root of the solution is to prevent the harassment in the first place, by educating and reinforcing policies that come with severe consequences.

Meanwhile, women deserve more from their workplaces, that goes beyond vague directions to talk to their manager (who may be the problem) or talk to HR (who sometimes look out for the best interests of the company rather than the individual). So long as women are viewed as second-class employees, they will never be truly immune to the advances of voracious men.

What comes next has to be about helping all women, not just slapping the wrists of a few men. The goal to eradicate sexual harassment can't be realised by creating an environment where it's tokenistically not tolerated. We need to create spaces where all employees are valued and their issues duly addressed.

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