What #MeToo means for the everyday woman
The #MeToo movement has allowed women to tell their stories in the realm of social media, but has this awareness translated into meaningful action in the workplace?
Samantha, 38, is a sexual assault survivor who endured sexual harassment in the workplace for several months, 16 years ago. And although the incident happened over a decade ago, the abuse of power is still fresh in Samantha’s mind. Like many women who have been in similar situations, she felt alone and silenced by those in positions that could have supported her.
Since the introduction of the #MeToo movement, the question leering in the air is: “Has anything changed since #MeToo began last year for women working outside of Hollywood?” #MeToo has been an integral part of starting the conversation of sexual harassment and sexual violence in the workplace. Through social media platforms like Twitter, women have been able to assemble and share their stories in support of each other.
The phrase ‘MeToo’ was created by social activist and community organizer Tarana Burke in 2006. It began as a campaign to promote “empowerment through empathy” for women of colour in marginalized communities.
And although the movement has transformed into a social protest that is meant to empower all women who have experienced sexual assault in the workplace, it seems the impact of the conversation has been limited to rich white women in Hollywood with the power to expose their abusers. California politician Lorena Gonzalez alluded to this in an interview with USA Today, expressing that Black working-class women have been left out of #MeToo.
Many women working in various sectors have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. This harassment can include anything from lewd inappropriate comments, unwanted touching and advances, to rape and more. However, most women do not report when they experience sexual violence. According to a Johnson survey on sexual violence in Canada, out of 1,000 attacks that occur, only 33 are reported.
Samantha, who asked to have her last name omitted, dealt with sexual harassment in her former workplace. She was employed by a company where she worked as an assistant. “The president of the company would talk to me a lot and say things like ‘I enjoy sitting here and watching you’,” she says. “He would stare at my breasts. I can’t explain the feeling but it’s the feeling that women get when they are being objectified.”
Samantha, a woman of colour from Toronto who identifies as Trinidadian and Italian was conflicted, as many women are who experience sexual violence in the workplace. She wanted the harassment to stop, but feared losing her job and decided to try to cope with the situation in her own way.
“I started wearing bigger jackets to work because I felt uncomfortable. Then human resources called me into the office and told me that I needed to start dressing more professionally,” she said. “So, I told them that I was dressing like this because my boss made me feel uncomfortable.”
HR did not take Samantha’s situation seriously, so she ended up confronting her boss and telling him that the environment was unhealthy for her.
“His response was, ‘OK, I’ll just sit at my desk and look at you,’” she says. “Then I decided that I would not engage in conversation that wasn’t work-related. Soon after he complained to HR that I was not being polite.”
Yamikani Msosa, a feminist organizer and former specialist in sexual violence and education at Ryerson University, has several theories about why women fear speaking out about sexual violence. “The fears include thoughts of, ‘I don’t want to make a big deal about it, I’m going to lose my job, the process is going to be onerous, what if the fact-finding doesn’t lead to the result that I want?’” she said. “Some survivors may feel that they are jeopardizing their employment.”
Although the movement aims to promote equality and inclusiveness, the fact is most women do not feel safe confronting their abusers and do not benefit from #MeToo in the way that same way women in Hollywood have. Most women outside of Hollywood do not have the platform or support from their respective employers to come forward.
“With #MeToo and #TimesUp, it’s folks who are in privileged positions that are able to have these conversations,” Msosa explains.
“One of the biggest criticisms is folks who are in precarious work usually do not feel they can challenge their boss. Some of these women are single mothers who have to put food on the table.”
These complex issues about coming forward are more multifaceted for women who are in marginalized and racialized communities.
“If we look at carceral feminism, which is the type of feminism that focuses on the criminal justice system for its responses to sexual violence, a lot of communities already have complicated relationships with that,” Msosa says. “So, if a Black woman has seen a man in her family experience police brutality, she may not trust these institutions.”
When we think of missing and murdered Indigenous women, it’s not a secret that our criminal justice system is broken, specifically when it comes to sexual violence. There’s all of these racial dynamics at play in terms how we seek justice.”
Arezoo Najibzadah is one of the founders of Young Women’s Leadership Network in Toronto. She has worked on addressing sexual violence in politics, specifically for racialized and marginalized women for four years and creating a consent culture in political institutions.
“Creating consent culture is the same as creating polices that have a gender-based framework,” she explains. “The policy can be there, but we have to feel OK with accessing the justice or the support it promises.”
Additionally, Najibzadah believes women not having access to equal pay is a contributing factor to sexual violence being pervasive in the workplace. Women outside of Hollywood have even fewer resources to confront sexual discrimination happening in their place of employment.
“Pay equity policy is one of the things that can affect gender-based violence in the workplace. If we look at the legal system and the cost for survivors, this is what holds a lot of women back,” Najibzadah explains. “It’s not until women have the financial confidence and the social support they need to come forward to seek justice that they can speak up.”
For Samantha not much changed at her workplace after she was sexually harassed by her boss. “I attempted to speak to human resources, and their response was ‘what do you want me to do about it?’,” she said. “They could not fathom firing the president. I asked them if they could speak to him and I got a look. I didn’t go back after that day. I didn’t quit, I just didn’t go back.”