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After #MeToo, What’s Next?

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By Saeculum Research

Time capped off 2017 by naming “The Silence Breakers” Person of the Year, recognizing the women and men who have come forward with stories about sexual harassment and assault. The nationwide reckoning on sexual harassment began in October of last year in the wake of accusations against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Since then, a torrent of new allegations has surfaced, toppling the careers of dozens of powerful men as millions of people have come forward to share their stories. Those behind this #MeToo movement have launched a global conversation, one the magazine’s editor-in-chief called “one of the highest velocity shifts in our culture since the 1960s.” That conversation has expanded into a wide-ranging, highly charged, and complex debate over what legislators, businesses, and Hollywood should do about sexual misconduct.

#MeToo’s huge visibility rides on a broad social consensus that harassment is a serious and pervasive problem. A recent Ipsos/NPR poll finds that about 70 percent of Americans (both men and women) believe most women have been sexually harassed at some point at their lives. Meanwhile, in a new Pew poll, a solid majority of Americans—regardless of gender, race, education, or political affiliation—said they consider the issue of sexual misconduct “very important­” for the country. Two-thirds believe the recent allegations “mainly reflect widespread problems in society,” while barely one-quarter attribute them simply to “individual misconduct.”

Americans also agree that the climate of opinion on this issue has recently been changing. When asked by Ipsos/NPR, people agreed that—compared to five years ago—reports of harassment are less likely to be ignored today and that women are less likely to be risking their careers by speaking up. More significantly, 78 percent of men agreed that, “Now, I am very cautious about what I say or do in a group setting.”

Why have the floodgates opened now? To some extent, the moment may have been triggered by the circumstances of Harvey Weinstein’s misdeeds. Those who stay quiet about harassment often fear retaliation or being blamed. But the star power of Weinstein’s accusers clearly emboldened victims to speak up who otherwise would not have done so. Their resolve was further strengthened by social media, which offered a sense of safety in numbers. The road for #MeToo was perhaps also paved by the recent and astonishing spectacle of an iconic celebrity (Bill Cosby) and a U.S. president (Donald Trump) being publicly charged by multiple female accusers.

Yet there is a deeper, generational dynamic behind this timing. The past decade has seen the entry into the workplace of a new generation of Millennial women. These Millennials were sheltered from abusive treatment as kids, were taught by their moms that they would be respected for their workplace achievements, and actually expected that the system would protect them from predators. But they have been entering an informal, anything-goes work culture put in place by Boomer and Xer managers who tend to believe that employees who don’t like it are free to vote with their feet. Here we see the mismatch. The rising generation of workers was looking for responsible mentors. Older generations of workers were looking for transactional opportunities.

Generationally, then, #MeToo was a perfect storm waiting to happen. It is revealing that many of the worst offenders had been victimizing young women for decades. But until recently, nearly all the victims had been Xer or Boomer young women who had not been sheltered as kids, had little expectation about “fairness” in the workplace, and never expected that the law or public opinion cared anything about their welfare. So they seldom spoke up, despite the fact that, around the victimizers, “everybody knew” what was going on.

While Americans are united in considering sexual misconduct a serious social problem, addressing it is a difficult challenge—with polls reflecting a great degree of contradictory attitudes even among the same respondents.

Some leaders on the left, like New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, are calling for a zero-tolerance approach that comes down equally hard on all cases. To support her position, she can turn to the Ipsos/NPR poll, in which 86 percent of all Americans (including 82 percent of men) agree that “a zero-tolerance policy for sexual harassment is essential to bringing about change in our society.”

Zero-tolerance, however, is unlikely to work if you cannot easily identify the vice you are fighting: The same poll reveals that a majority of Americans (59 percent) agree that “it can be hard sometimes to tell” what sexual harassment is. It’s also unlikely to work if the vice is an incorrigible aspect of human nature: Roughly 44 percent of both men and women agree that “it is inevitable that men will ‘hit on’ women at work.” Complicating the picture still further is the fact that large majorities of Americans believe that, in charges of sexual harassment, both the accuser and the accused “should be given the benefit of the doubt.”

More plausible than targeted legal reform are broader social changes forwarded by those in the political middle. Elected officials in both parties, for example, are coming together to push new rules. Lawmakers and staff in Congress are now required to undergo annual anti-harassment training­. This is in addition to proposed legislation that would require offending members of Congress to be named and hold them financially liable for any settlements against them.

Already these types of reforms are beginning to take hold throughout society. In Chicago and Seattle, hotels must provide panic buttons to employees who work in guests’ rooms alone. Classrooms are changing as well: Whether it’s through social-emotional curricula for Homelanders (see: “Children, Behave Yourselves”) or lessons on consent for Millennials, the traditional model of masculinity is giving way to more communicative, less aggressive norms. Even MBA programs are making changes, with more professors integrating lessons on sexism and business ethics into the syllabus. In the workplace, more employers are replacing antiquated, punitive-style policies with programs that train men and women together on the issue (often at the urging of Millennials) as a vital step in teaching mutual respect. Employers are also emphasizing considerate behaviorscaling back on alcohol at office parties, and urging co-workers who witness harassment to speak up.

The #MeToo movement will continue its public run ahead of the 2018 and 2020 elections. While the Democratic Party by and large sees the movement as their opportunity to galvanize their base, sheer hazard may just as easily end up favoring Republicans: It recently came to light that there are 264 sealed cases of sexual misconduct that Congress has settled over the last 20 years (for $17 million in taxpayers’ money!) on behalf of both staff and lawmakers. No one knows who these individuals are, Democratic or Republican. Will the inevitable revelation end up tipping the House or Senate? No one knows. Let the die be cast.

Material posted on this website is for informational purposes only and does not constitute a legal opinion or medical advice. Contact your legal representative or medical professional for information specific to your legal or medical needs.

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