American business and #MeToo
#MeToo one year on: what changes in corporate America?
One year ago, powerful Hollywood producer, Harvey Weinstein, was accused of sexual abuse by dozens of women, many of whom were famous actresses. The hashtag #MeToo took hold of social media, inviting victims of sexual harassment to bear witness publicly. It marked the beginning of a feminist movement that very quickly achieved worldwide recognition. One year on, what has been the effect of #MeToo on American corporate culture?
It is almost a year since revelations emerged about the behaviour of Harvey Weinstein, a film-studio boss charged with multiple counts of rape and sexual assault. In response Alyssa Milano, an actor, invited anyone who had been harassed or assaulted to tweet #MeToo. The hashtag has since been shared over 15m times. Victims of harassment in workplaces of all sorts, from S&P 500 companies to small-and medium-sized firms to startups, have come forward in unprecedented numbers to share their harrowing experiences.
2. Many powerful men have been forced out. [In September], one of the most-praised bosses in media, Les Moonves, the chief executive of CBS, was forced to leave following accusations of sexual harassment (which he denies). A handful, including Mr Weinstein, await trial.
3. Firms are under growing pressure to change how women are treated at work. Not a week goes by without a fresh example of an organisation finding itself in the spotlight. [In September], workers at McDonald’s, one of several firms being sued by workers, protested against a culture of harassment, replacing the “M” on their MeToo banners with the golden arches. In the same week the board of the New York Review of Books, under pressure from advertisers, pushed out its editor, Ian Buruma, after he published a controversial essay by Jian Ghomeshi, a Canadian broadcaster and alleged abuser.
4. Some people worry that the movement has gone too far, warning of a “witch hunt”, “trial by Twitter,” and the end of innocent office ro- mance. Others fret about a backlash for women at work, where senior male executives may no longer want to mentor them or travel or dine with them alone.
5. Some responses have felt knee-jerk: Netflix, a media company, was mocked when in training it reportedly suggested a rule against people gazing into each other’s eyes for more than five seconds on film sets. Yet the occasional overreaction may be part of the messy process of changing norms across society, business and politics. Although the majority of those over 65 say it has become harder for men to interact professionally with women in the wake of MeToo, a minority of those under 30 say the same.
6. It is true that some notorious sexual predators are now facing justice; Mr Weinstein’s next court appearance is in November. But most of those accused of harassment or assault have faced the court of public opinion, not the law itself. In America the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, a federal agency, has noted in preliminary findings just a modest, 3% uptick in sexual-harassment complaints filed by employees this year. This is in part because few victims report abuse, let alone press charges. Those who do rarely manage to get their complaints heard in court. In America the Time’s Up movement set up a $21m legal-defence fund to try to change this. Since January it has had 3,500 applications, twothirds of them from low-income workers.
7. Many American states are reviewing their laws. Washington now bars employers from mandatory non-disclosure agreements for employees, which stop workers from speaking out publicly about their experiences. Several are exploring extending or ending statutes of limitations, spurred on by revelations of child abuse in the Catholic church in America.
ACTIONS FROM THE EMPLOYERS
8. What the law can do is in any case only part of the picture. Many, if not most, of the accounts of harassment that have emerged in the past year point less to a failure of lawmakers than to one on the part of employers. Big companies in America are keen to be seen to “do something”: the number of public declarations about zero tolerance of harassment has gone up. Yet whether or not their actions are meaningful, or whether they are still dodging deeper problems around power imbalances in the workplace, is very much in question.
9. Customers, investors, boards, employees, stock analysts and even insurers increasingly ask for information on what a company does for women, including the protection it affords against harassment. Equileap, which ranks firms on gender-equality criteria, now includes sexualharassment policies. It is seeing strong demand for such data. That is partly because the headline costs of a scandal are clear: shares of several big firms have fallen sharply after executive departures. But less obvious costs, such as to productivity, turnover and reputation, are also becoming harder to ignore.
10. Even so, few firms want to talk publicly about what they are doing inside the organisation. Those that do often have reputations sorely in need of burnishing. Uber, a ride-hailing firm, replaced much of its top management and claims to have prioritised culture and safety. The Old Vic, a London theatre tainted by a scandal involv-
Big companies in America are keen to be seen to “do something.”
ing Kevin Spacey, its former director, will next week announce a “Guardians network” to better protect workers in the performing arts.
11. Less visibly, several employers have made efforts to improve internal procedures for reporting harassment. Independent, anonymous helplines overcome conflicts of interest and several report growing demand. But many other firms appear to be shirking the task. Less than a third of Americans surveyed in May said that their employer had done anything new to deal with sexual harassment following #MeToo, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).