Forests recover from wildfires through the germination of seeds that are stored in the earth, some of which need the heat of fire to germinate successfully. Singed trees can sprout new branches that become new trees. In short, many forests benefit from an occasional fire. But what of the business landscape after the wildfire that is the #MeToo movement?
It has been nearly two years since the movement spread across the country and then the world, like a climate-change fueled wildfire. The tinder? The untold stories of millions of women who had experienced sexual or physical harassment, assault, or abuse in the workplace.
Although the term had been coined nearly ten years earlier by Tamara Burke, the movement had been a smoldering ember until Alyssa Milano fanned it by asking her Twitter followers to respond with the hashtag #MeToo if they had experienced sexual harassment or assault.
Milano’s tweet went out around noon on October 15th, 2017. By the end of the day the hashtag had been used more than 500,000 times. Meanwhile, over on Facebook, it was as though someone poured gasoline on an already out-of-control fire as 4.7 million people posted on the platform 12 million times. Facebook reported that 45 percent of users in the United States had a friend who had posted using the term.
The New York Times reported that in the first year after #MeToo broke, 201 prominent business, political, entertainment and sports leaders lost their jobs due to sexual harassment or assault charges. But along with their removal from their appointed offices, the #MeToo wildfire left a scarred business landscape.
The hope for many #MeToo victims was that a more equitable, respectful, and safer business environment would emerge from the ashes. However, a new study led by University of Houston professor Leanne Atwater says that while sexual misconduct in the workplace may decline, there is certainly a backlash that punishes women in the workplace as a whole.
Both men and women surveyed in Atwater’s study believe there will be positive outcomes from the #MeToo movement. Speaking to the University’s Bauer College of Business magazine, Atwood said “Men are going to be more careful with their behavior. Women are going to be more willing to speak out. Employers are going to take this more seriously.”
But the study also revealed that the majority of men and women believe that men in power will continue to engage in sexual harassment. They also believe more women will feel empowered to speak out when harassed. The result of these fears? Increasing segregation between men and women and fewer opportunities for women, as men reported being less willing to hire an attractive woman for the job, no matter her qualifications.
In other words, the aftermath of the #MeToo movement in the business environment is a mixed bag and it’s too soon to say whether the inevitable regrowth that rises from the ashes is more fair and balanced.
Atwood suggests that companies need to actively develop awareness of what is happening within their organizations and tackle it head-on. When any kind of abuse happens—whether it’s harassment or incivility or hostility—it must be reported. To look the other way is complicity and allows the behavior to continue.
The #MeToo movement focused largely on the people at the top of a power pyramid, but there are many millions more leaders and workers at every level of society—from food service to healthcare facilities to life coaching to yoga studios—who are at risk of sexual harassment or assault and feel they have no option but to suffer in silence, still.
I was working on an assignment in an organization where sexual harrassment and other toxic behaviors were the norm when the movement broke. As a sexual assault survivor, the rape jokes, predatory behavior, bullying and threatening were personally very triggering. It was a small company with no real human resource department to go to for assistance or advocacy. I had just completed a writing residency in New England and driven across the country for this project and after six months without income, I couldn’t afford to leave. I did what most single, self-sustaining women would do; I told myself that I was tough, I had survived worse, and I could endure it just a little longer.
The day arrived when the offender cornered me and demanded to know why I refused to travel with him on assignment. In a panic, I blurted out the many reasons why I felt unsafe. The bullying. The screaming. The time I saw him hit another man not six feet away from me. The reports of past physical abuses that the entire community knew about him. The thinly disguised and inappropriate sexual innuendo texts to my personal phone on the weekend. There were three other men in the room as this conversation took place and they all silently got up and walked out, leaving me alone with this individual. I have never felt more betrayed.
I would like to believe my example is an anomaly. I’d like to believe that more men actually would and do stand up to tyranny and demand a safe, sane, fair workplace. But I know better because I am a woman. And like Elizabeth Warren, I persist. I persist in believing that radical gender equity, representation, and female empowerment are not only possible but becoming more the norm than not.
The largest flames may have settled, but all across the global business landscape there are still flashes of heat and smoldering embers that pop and hiss #MeToo.
How we help this scorched earth to recover will require a conscious team effort—men and women alike—along with focused education, a fair dose of humility, and a great deal of courage. We are all stakeholders in this issue and crafting a call-to-action is elusive given that we are still learning the magnitude and causes of the problem. Having more women leaders in business and in politics isn’t a sure-fire solution, but it’s more likely to tilt the scales toward an equitable solution.
If women do experience increased lack of opportunity as a backlash it would qualify as a kind of revictimization. And I suspect if it were to continue we can expect another wildfire of #MeToo on a scale that will make the burning in the Amazon rainforest look like an aromatherapy candle.