confessions of a former #metoo sceptic
It seems rather depressing, and possibly even counterproductive to suggest that #MeToo hasn’t had a tangible effect on working women’s lives, and it’s not that I don’t think it will -- it’s just that it hasn’t happened yet.
This article originally appeared in i-D's The Earthwise Issue, no. 353, Fall 2018.
Hello, my name is Otegha, and I’m a former #MeToo sceptic.
When the movement first emerged at the end of last year, my immediate, instinctive reaction was, “What can a hashtag really do to change anything?” What we were dealing with wasn’t the comparatively clear-cut situation of a legal injustice or corporate misstep, where often the weight of a social media outcry can prompt a correction, but rather an insidious mindset seemingly embedded into the very fabric of our society and the psyche of too many men to count.
Despite social media having proven integral to my life in countless ways, when it comes to social change, I’ve always been wary of “hashtag activism”, and the opportunity some see in it to virtue signal without doing any of the actual work; the false sense of achievement derived from tweeting from the comfort of one’s sofa. I suspect that viewpoint makes me rather old-fashioned, despite being the archetypal millennial in almost every other way.
To be clear, I wasn’t sceptical about the stories that were being shared, or numerous women’s decisions to share those stories, or even the idea that we desperately need to drag this darkness out into open view – sunlight being the best disinfectant and all that. But I felt deeply uncomfortable about a movement where the onus seemed to be on women to share harrowing stories as a means of instigating change, and sceptical about the likelihood of those deeply personal disclosures prompting any real progress. Women are not the problem here, I grumbled (privately), so why are we the ones doing all the work?
I have never been so glad to be so wrong.
The #MeToo movement, originally created by black activist Tarana Burke in 2006, but now undergoing a post-Weinstein renaissance after actress Alyssa Milano tweeted in October 2017 that anyone who’d ever been “sexually harassed or assaulted” should respond to said tweet with “#MeToo”, has sparked a new frontier in conversations around the prevalence of sexual harassment against women, particularly as those issues pertain to the world of work. Since that fateful tweet last October, numerous high-profile heads have rolled across expensive lacquered floors. Like many, I have derived a deep sense of satisfaction from watching men who have for too long escaped censure being publicly taken to task.
“It seems rather depressing, and possibly even counterproductive to suggest that #MeToo hasn’t had a tangible effect on working women’s lives, and it’s not that I don’t think it will – it’s just that it hasn’t happened yet…”
And of course, #MeToo also laid the groundwork for the Time’s Up legal fund, a mission that – despite its starry Hollywood origins – I cleaved to far more quickly. Here at last was a concrete tool via which women could secure legal redress, and crucially, one targeted towards women in the sorts of professions often overlooked by fourth wave feminism: the cleaners, waitresses, caretakers and other low-wage service sector workers often obliged by reasons of economic circumstance to be far more forgiving of male transgression than their wealthier, whiter sisters-in-arms.
But the question still remains: what can a hashtag do to instigate change? And have the lives of working women actually changed in light of #MeToo?
It’s cheering that Weinstein, the Goliath whose downfall prompted this tidal wave of social discourse, was finally arrested in May and may face a substantial prison sentence. Across the pond in the UK, GQ political correspondent Rupert Myers was swiftly and publicly axed from his role at the magazine after allegations of sexual assault and other improprieties against several female journalists surfaced online. Similarly, freelance journalist Sam Kriss was suspended from the Labour Party on account of similar behaviour, and sources at VICE (where Kriss had been a regular contributor) confirmed that they wouldn’t be working with him again. Although all have, to some extent, denied the allegations.
I have heard more than one story of women receiving profuse apologies from men in their lives who, prompted by the conversations surrounding #MeToo, have realised that they too had abused their position and acted improperly towards the often young, always more junior women they’d encountered in the past.
One evening in late May, I went to meet an old friend for a drink. She had recently resigned from her job at a leading London ad agency where she’d been working for nearly five years, in part because she no longer felt able to work in an environment where a senior creative had been harassing female staff members and conducting affairs with a revolving cast of naïve juniors in what seemed to her (and to me) like a clear abuse of power. Her numerous complaints to management had fallen on deaf ears despite clear evidence of his behaviour creating a toxic culture for the women he worked with – instead, whispers of my friend being ‘difficult to work with’ and ‘mean’ had begun to circulate, with the creative in question enjoying protected status on account of his ‘creative genius’.
“Ironically given the intended target of the #MeToo movement – bad men – what has changed, is women. At last we’re having the long overdue conversations – and having them loudly – that make it more acceptable to voice concerns about behaviour we’ve long been conditioned to accept.”
This was a company that was publicly making all the right noises with regards to #MeToo – setting up an anonymous hotline via which staff could supposedly report inappropriate behaviour without fear of retribution, and circulating numerous all-staffer emails outlining the measures they were putting in place.
Eventually the creative director was quietly let go, but for my friend it was too little too late, and she left soon afterwards, her desire to remain with the company exhausted by their lack of desire to hold predatory staff members accountable for their actions.
Depressingly, according to a survey commissioned by the Lean In organisation back in January, the number of male managers who feel uncomfortable mentoring women has more than tripled since the #MeToo movement first began. Despite #MeToo having led to a not insignificant number of men having to face the consequences of their predatory actions, somehow it’s still women who are collectively bearing the brunt of the movement’s fallout.
Revelations in April that eight out of 10 UK companies with greater than 250 employees had reported a pay differential between the men and women amongst their ranks (a figure it seems reasonable to extrapolate to the British workforce as a whole) were a stark reminder of another facet of the push for workplace rights for women in desperate need of attention. Few companies have outlined concrete measures or deadlines for pay parity, with the stock corporate responses about “recognising the work to be done” and “commitments to transparency” being trotted out by harried human resource departments up and down the country. Perhaps as a result of the heated atmosphere surrounding said pay gap revelations, when it came to light that actress Claire Foy, arguably the driving force of Netflix’s smash hit series The Crown, had been paid around £200,000 less than her male co-star Matt Smith, its producers were publicly shamed into promising to compensate Foy for the differential -- though Foy herself later revealed that she was in fact never paid the £200,000 backpay in question.
But the reality is that most ordinary working women don’t enjoy the advantage of having an agent to negotiate on their behalf, or the weight of public opinion in their favour. Tellingly, when I put a call out via social media (where I have nearly 40,000 followers across different platforms, the majority of whom are female-identifying) seeking women who think that their working lives have improved in light of the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements, or whose employers have made positive steps towards redressing the gender pay gap unveiled in April, I am unable to generate even a single response. I try again, more urgently – still nothing.
It seems rather depressing, and possibly even counterproductive to progress, to suggest that #MeToo hasn’t had a tangible effect on working women’s lives, and it’s not that I don’t think it will – it’s just that it hasn’t happened yet. Examine the annals of history and you’ll see that when it comes to social and cultural shifts of the kind we’re trying to engender, progress is very often excruciatingly slow, and for every two steps forward, we are pushed back one (see the outpouring of criticism from all the usual suspects that perhaps the #MeToo movement has gone “too far”). In the UK at least, sexual harassment outside of the workplace isn’t actually a criminal offence in its own right, a fact that arguably normalises behaviour that inevitably seeps into our working lives, and a clear argument for the importance of high-level policy change around gendered maltreatment.
Ironically, given the intended target of the #MeToo movement – bad men – what has changed, is women. At last we’re having the long overdue conversations – and having them loudly – that make it more acceptable to voice concerns about behaviour we’ve long been conditioned to accept, and perhaps until now didn’t even have the necessary language to effectively call out. Women are still bearing the brunt of the burden, but we’re changing things.
Working women have gathered, and we’re talking the talk. Now everyone else just needs to walk the walk.