By Stéphanie Thomson
Stéphanie Thomson is an editor at the World Economic Forum.
It’s a pattern we’ve seen throughout history, from the French barricades to Tahrir Square: first, there’s the revolution, where once-powerful male leaders are toppled and long-accepted injustices are challenged. Then there’s the retaliation, where those who dared to push for change are punished and put back in their box.
That’s what some observers worry is happening with the #MeToo movement, the feminist revolution that has helped draw attention to the prevalence of sexual harassment and assault. “I have already heard the rumblings of a backlash,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg warned in a post earlier this month.
If you’re just skimming headlines, you’ll probably think these fears are overblown. After all, each day brings fresh allegations against well-known (and sometimes well-loved) male celebrities. If anything, #MeToo looks to be gaining momentum, not losing it. What started in Hollywood has now spread to industries and countries far beyond Tinseltown.
Outside the media’s gaze, things – or at least attitudes – also appear to be changing for the better. In 2016 a survey of US voters revealed that only 30% of respondents thought sexism was a “big” problem in American society. When the same question was put to voters a year later, that figure had risen to 44%.
Of course, as promising as all this is, it’s still only a small step in the right direction. “This is no doubt a watershed moment in empowering victims to speak up and share stories,” Sandberg argued in her Facebook post. “But it is not enough. We need systemic, lasting changes that deter bad behavior and protect everyone, from professionals climbing the corporate ladder to workers in low-paid positions who often have little power.”
Which leads to two important questions. How can this online protest movement create real social change? And what policies will it take to get us there?
Luckily, experts have a few ideas.
From online to offline: lessons from black lives matter
Activists have something of a mixed record when it comes to using the internet to instigate real-world change. As Hayley Tsukayama wrote in the Washington Post, online-first movements like Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring “weren’t outright failures”, but they did fall far “short of many people’s expectations”.
If there’s one that has shown staying power, though, it’s Black Lives Matter, a social-media born activist group that campaigns against violence and systemic racism towards black people. Deen Freelon, an associate professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has carried out research on the group and how it moved beyond a hashtag. He thinks a few things account for its success.
First, the group took a data-driven approach to the problem it was seeking to tackle. “Black Lives Matter has been proactive in collecting data to support its cause,” Freelon explains. “Activists have pulled together data on things like the content of police contracts and the laws and policies that are most effective in reducing police violence.”
That first step allowed them to take their second one: defining concrete, specific goals that all those involved could rally round. Campaign Zero, an offshoot of Black Lives Matter, “has a list of 10 policy reforms it supports that are all backed by research”, says Freelon.
If the women behind #MeToo want to bring the online movement into the real world, they should look at doing something similar. “They need to figure out what data matters to them and how they can get it,” Freelon advises. Once they have that, “they should be very specific in terms of what they want to accomplish”, he says. “Whether it’s legislative change, institutional change, cultural change or all three, #MeToo needs to define its goals in measurable terms so that success can be measured effectively.”
Policies that actually prevent sexual harassment
So what policies would lead to success when it comes to stamping out sexual harassment? Very few of those that are currently in place.
Take harassment training, which over 90% of large US corporations require staff to take. While they might help protect companies from lawsuits, they do little to reduce the problem. In fact, they could be having the opposite effect. “Men who score high on a psychological scale for likelihood to harass women come out of training with significantly worse attitudes toward harassment, thinking it is no big deal,” Harvard professor Frank Dobbin argues.
But Dobbin’s research has uncovered two things that would reduce sexual harassment, at least in the workplace. First, hire more women. “In industries and workplaces where women are well represented in the core jobs, harassment is significantly less likely to occur,” Dobbin says. “Core” means doing more than hiring a bunch of women as secretaries in your tech firm and then claiming you have gender parity. In this particular example, it would mean also ensuring your engineering department is not made up entirely of men.
Once companies have hired more women, what next? Start promoting them into leadership positions. “Reducing power differentials can help, not only because women are less likely than men to harass but also because their presence in management can change workplace culture,” Dobbin says.
Instead, too many companies are happy to make what Dobbin refers to as “cosmetic” fixes – small measures that look good in press releases but fail to tackle the root causes of sexual harassment.
In the meantime, the proportion of female leaders in a range of industries has been increasing at the snail’s pace of just 2% a year since 2007, according to the latest Global Gender Gap Report. It’s stubborn problems like this that #MeToo activists will have to focus on if they’re to stamp out sexual harassment at work.
Next steps for the feminist revolution
It wouldn’t be fair to say #MeToo is “just a social media movement”, as critics of slacktivism have argued.
A little over three months after women started using the hashtag en masse to share their stories, this online movement has led to real-world change, points out Lisa-Maria Neudert, a researcher at the Oxford Internet Institute. “#MeToo is already a successful movement since it has empowered victims of sexual harassment and misogynistic behavior to speak up, sparked a public conversation on the issue and forced a number of men to publicly address their wrongdoings and even step down,” she says.
But as important as it is for women to have a platform through which to share their stories, Twitter will only get us so far. For one thing, although it might help celebrities bring attention to their own and others’ plights, women working in less glamorous and lower-profile industries are still struggling to make themselves heard.
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