“Yes, there is a positive to take from the recent allegations of sexual harassment”

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Emily Reynolds
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Decades of alleged sexual assault and abuse in Hollywood are finally coming to light. With some of the biggest names in the business being accused, from Harvey Weinstein to Kevin Spacey, more and more people are coming forward to tell their stories. Here’s why now is the moment for women to unite together – and take more than just a stand against the endemic harassment and abuse that is evident across all industries.

It’s been a long month since the first public allegations of abuse were leveled at Harvey Weinstein. Since then, further allegations of systemic abuse in almost every public-facing industry – film, television, politics, journalism and more – have finally come to the surface. The flood of allegations shows no sign of stopping, with column inches piling up as both women and men from Hollywood to Westminster come forward with distressing stories of harassment and assault.

This has left many feeling drained, disheartened and pessimistic. If this alleged blatant abuse could be ignored for so long, what hope is there for the future?

But there are – admittedly, extremely scant – positives to be gleaned from the situation. For one, women are, finally, slowly, starting to be believed. So often were our experiences silenced or disregarded that many of us didn’t bother to discuss them at all: it would only cost us.

Now, it feels marginally less damning to talk about harassment: less dangerous, and less likely to destroy our careers. Employment lawyer Jane Amphlett said she was hopeful the allegations would encourage women to report abuse. “The more perpetrators are called out about this abuse of power, the less prevalent it will become,” she told The Guardian.

This certainly seems to be the case in the US. Although no similar stats are available in the UK yet, chief executive of the American National Women’s Law Center, Fatima Goss Graves, told the New York Times that, since the Weinstein allegations were first made public, the centre had “gotten twice the volume of calls of people who have said they’ve experienced harassment”. 

Reporting sexual assault at work: With the Harvey Weinstein case, I feel like a rubbish woman, and a rubbish feminist, for not wanting to report it."
Reporting sexual assault at work: With the Harvey Weinstein case, I feel like a rubbish woman, and a rubbish feminist, for not wanting to report it."

Encouraging women to speak out is a good start, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. #MeToo or not, allegations of harassment are still at best dismissed, at worst completely disbelieved. This is especially true when it happens in the workplace, where concerns about inappropriate behaviour are routinely ignored. Harassment policies are often in place, yes, but how many women are given access to them or know where to turn if they need practical, emotional or legal support? It’s clear that, across the board, we need to create a culture shift.

And where better to start than in our own industries? An organisation I helped co-found, The Second Source, is seeking to do just that in our own: journalism. Outside of changing attitudes towards harassment, we hope to encourage employers to implement practical changes, working with them to improve their harassment policies and make them both effective and readily available for employees. We can also signpost women towards legal assistance and professional support, and plan to create networking opportunities for female journalists who want to expand their contact books without being forced into uncomfortable situations with predatory men.

The Second Source aims to stamp out sexual harassment and abuse in journalism

Similar initiatives are popping up all the time. In film, production company Boudica Films has launched ‘No Predators’, a campaign that they hope will “combat the overt sexism that is deeply ingrained in the film industry’. Alongside producing ‘No Predators’ badges, the company has also authored a code of conduct and launched a free legal advice service for “any film professional who has experienced sexual harassment, abuse or assault”.

In academia, the 1752 Group are working to end staff-to-student sexual misconduct: after the first UK conference on the topic was held at Goldsmiths, University of London in 2015, a group of women set up the organisation, citing a need to “address the issue on a national level”.

“There was a lot of amazing work being done on student-to-student harassment, sexual violence and hate crime, but continued silence in speaking out about staff sexual misconduct in higher education and recognising that this was a serious issue,” a spokesperson from the group told me. “Nowhere in the world is there adequate knowledge and research on the prevalence and impact of staff sexual misconduct in higher education.”

The group are now partnering with the NUS on the first national survey of staff-student sexual misconduct, and are working with a top UK law firm to draft new national guidelines for codes of conduct. The group has had a lot of success, it says, by engaging all involved parties: “to get sustainable change, you have to have the groundswell of activism and culture change from the ground, but also the change in policy that can only come from the top”.

Kevin Spacey was a major Hollywood star before the sexual misconduct scandal

It’s an oft-heard sentiment that harassment, abuse and rape are less about sex and more about power. Every conversation I have had about workplace harassment in the last few weeks has borne this out, making it increasingly clear the impact that male-weighted power imbalances have on women - whether that’s from a freelance journalist’s editor, a university student’s lecturer, an executive chef in a Michelin starred kitchen or a shift manager in a retail job.

This last point is important. Abuse does not just happen in public-facing industries like journalism, media or politics – they are simply the most visible examples of what is endemic in the lives of women from every walk of life. And women in low-paid or precarious work – women far less likely to be afforded the privileges that journalists or MPs are granted – are even more vulnerable and at risk, and have even more to lose when they are subject to abuse.

No matter what role I’ve been in – from years working on a supermarket shop floor to a career in freelance writing – my female colleagues and peers have accepted that harassment is simply part of the status quo. But it doesn’t have to be like that for any woman. And soon, I hope, it won’t be. 

Images: Rex Features