#MeToo: Top-down approach required to combat workplace sexual violence, claims QUT professor

#MeToo: Top-down approach required to combat workplace sexual violence, claims QUT professor

A new evaluation of the #MeToo movement by Professor Paula McDonald from the QUT Faculty of Business and Law argues it has created a larger understanding of how workplace culture encourages ongoing disrespect, and that patterns of abuse go “all the way to the top”. 

McDonald argues "all areas of society - politics, business education charities, the arts, sport and religion” have acknowledged that harassers once protected by workplaces are now a liability after the movement gained traction internationally.

As such, she says pressure caused by #MeToo has pulled attention away from the misconduct of lone actors and towards organisational systems which support and enable them. 

“In the US context, the high-profile outing and trial of Harvey Weinstein and others has seen Wall Street add what is known as the ‘Weinstein clause’ to acquisitions and sales,” says McDonald. 

“The clause forces companies being sold or acquired to disclose any allegations of sexual harassment against officers, directors or employees. 

“Traditionally, employers have been reluctant to penalise high-profile, repeat harassers because it was expensive and inconvenient to replace them. They were concerned the harasser could sue for breach of contract, unfair dismissal and defamation."

As a result of the #MeToo movement, McDonald says investors and venture capitalists now care more about how companies handle harassment complaints because it “affects their ability to cash out”. 

Professor McDonald said thousands of individual narratives revealed by #MeToo had helped to delineate a range of harasser tactics: 

  1. Covering up when a harasser knows it is difficult to prove conduct that occurs in secret or behind closed doors, even if there is a consensus that the harasser is an ‘office sleaze bag’. 
  2. Devaluation such as undermining the credibility of the target, challenging their moral worth or claiming the target’s accusation are vexatious; characterising targets as ‘sluts’ or promiscuous; and alleging poor work performance. 
  3. Reframing actions as friendly, innocent or misunderstood, including ‘the kiss was innocent’, ‘the harm was trivial’ and the ‘boys will be boys’. 
  4. Leveraging official channels which includes obstructing or delaying investigations and harassers who enlist the support of senior managers to defend them. 
  5. Intimidation, which is about orchestrating outright or constructive dismissal of the complainant, physical threats, or threats of demotion or a reduction in work hours. 

Critics of the social movement like US actress Jane Fonda have often questioned its ability to create change for women without a celebrity profile or institutional power, arguing that attention has mostly centred on women who were “famous and white” despite the hashtag being initially created by black activist Tarana Burke 10 years ago. 

McDonald agrees, noting that it remains to be seen if these cultural changes will trickle down, as the privilege of taking a stand or risking job security was rarely actionable for women in low-income positions. 

Most notably, 700,000 female workers across US farm and packing sheds wrote an open letter to the industry in 2017, standing in solidarity with Hollywood actors and detailing their own stories of sexual abuse. 

“Women working in small businesses where the harasser is also the boss; the low paid and insecurely employed; rural and remote women who may have limited employment opportunities; migrants or those who speak English as a second language; and young and or disabled women all report high levels of sexual harassment,” says McDonald. 

“Firing the harassers is not enough. Organisations, equal opportunity commissions and courts must create victim-centric complaints processes to address the chronic under-reporting of gender-based violence.” 

She also argues that sexual harassment and violence against gay and bisexual men occur just as regularly as women. 

“A large survey of Victorian Police employees found that gay men were six times more likely than heterosexual men to experience sexual harassment, but that this was primarily perpetrated by other men," says McDonald. 

Despite the indictments of US film producer Harvey Weinstein and more recently singer R. Kelly, the impacts of #MeToo are yet to be felt in a legislative sense, though change in the halls of corporate Australia may yet influence the ways of policy. 

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