#MeToo shows cover up of sexual harassment goes ‘all way to top’ of organisations

The #MeToo movement has shifted the focus of sexual harassment from corrupted individuals to the pathological organisational systems which support and enable them.

  • Women’s reports of sexual harassment can no longer be buried, thanks to social media
  • #Metoo movement had shed light on harasser tactics including reframing the incident and intimidation
  • The “Weinstein clause” forces companies to disclose allegations of harassment against any employees during sales and acquisitions.
  • Remains to be seen whether remedial actions would extend from celebrities to less powerful women.

This is a major achievement of the #MeToo movement that has swept the world and forced the powerful to acknowledge that the harassers they once automatically protected were now a liability, says QUT work and organisation researcher, Professor Paula McDonald from the Faculty of Business and Law.

“Social media has enabled all women to go public with accusations, bypassing the gatekeepers who had historically buried their stories. The strength and breadth of the #MeToo movement has forced the powerful to pay attention.

“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.

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

“Thanks to #MeToo, investors and venture capitalists will now care much more about how companies handle harassment complaints because it affects their ability to cash out.”

Professor McDonald said it remained to be seen whether remedial actions would extend from famous celebrities to less powerful, vulnerable women.

“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.

“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.

“Under-reporting is the result of targets of sexual harassment anticipating, accurately, the overwhelmingly negative consequences of making a complaint.”

Professor McDonald said “#MeToo had exposed how predators in senior, influential positions in all areas of society – politics, business education charities, the arts, sport and religion – had exercised sexual power to harass, humiliate, discriminate, marginalise and bully.

“By revealing that abuse goes ‘all the way to the top’, #MeToo broke the longstanding, deafening silence about harassment and sexual assault in the workplace.

“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.

“Non-disclosure agreements allowed the perpetrators of sexual violence to keep their reputations intact and arguably, to reoffend.”

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

  1. Cover-up, where a harasser knows it is difficult to prove conduct that occurs in secret or behind closed doors, even where 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.

“The #MeToo movement has acknowledged that sexual harassment also affects men. People who are gay, transgender or bisexual are disproportionately targeted.

“For example, 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.”

/University Release. View in full here.