This ‘Me too’ movement which represents women who have been sexually harassed in workplace environments appears to have grown wings in the past few weeks. It has taken on a mind and memory of its own, ensnaring in its net a formidable bunch of the rich and famous, the powerful predatory males in positions of influence in show business and media outlets. Inevitably this will spread to other workplaces. That situation is happening as we speak.
I am uncomfortable with some of the premises on which accusations and counter-accusations are being made. Some of it is historic and therefore are accusations which would be very difficult to prove in a court of law. Women were fearful of speaking out then, fearful of losing a prized part in a stage production or film. Men in powerful positions held all the cards and management turned a blind eye to complaints from women. These women were simply regarded as nuisance value, and sent on their way or threatened with legal action if they continued to complain.
What has changed? Women have found solidarity in this ‘Me too’ movement. Women together are a formidable force. That’s a sure sign of a better, stronger future for our daughters and granddaughters. The movement led by powerful women is now morphing into a ‘Time’s up’ initiative which aims to stamp out sexual discrimination and gender inequality in the workplace. They are both powerful movements and hopefully, they will eventually combine to bring about what Oprah Winfrey describes as ‘A new day on the horizon.’
I draw a parallel to this with cases of children assaulted by their own priests. Those children feared for many years to speak out, feared to report or even speak of the unspeakable acts perpetrated on them by trusted adults. Those survivors, young boys and girls, had no defences, no experience to call on, no adults who would believe them or protect them from predatory males in positions of great power in the churches and social institutions of the time.
Women have faced those same problems in their workplaces for years. Who to turn to? Who to ask for support?
Australian women are only now beginning to feel confident to speak out for the Australian experience. Women are finding the courage to describe their experiences over decades. The discrimination women are calling out includes non-reemployment after pregnancy, management turning a blind eye to inappropriate comments and behaviour, lower pay for women performing the same work (gender equity issues), and fewer promotional opportunities.
Various commissions appointed to consider attitudes towards women in employment have found appalling discrimination. Women have been fair game on any number of fronts. The Australian Defence Forces across Air Force, Army and Navy had some frightening attitudes towards women in the forces; casual employment of women paid little or no salary by shonky employers alerted us to the depth of this problem.
This game is all about inequalities around power. It once again highlights the critical importance of including equal numbers of women in politics, on boards and in leadership roles in both our workplaces and more broadly. There are and always will be power plays in action. How those operate depends in large part on management, and their attitudes towards staff. This is reflected in the public debate at present.
I hope this Me too/Time’s Up movement is a game-changer for the future.