A year ago this week, the New York Times and New Yorker published devastating stories about Harvey Weinstein’s serial pattern of sexual assault. When the stories first broke, I remember thinking that they were notable but also pretty far outside my area of interest. I don’t recall paying that much attention to them. Until, that is, I clicked on the audio of Weinstein trying to get Ambra Battilana Gutierrez back into his hotel room. It was the mix of pressure and pleading in his voice, and the supreme discomfort in hers, that made this visceral in a way that 10,000 words on the subject cannot.
I heard that same discomfort in Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony two weeks ago. That did not stop the barest majority of senators from putting Brett M. Kavanaugh onto the Supreme Court. Or from President Trump mocking Ford’s testimony. Or from Melania “#BeBest” Trump saying that to make accusations of sexual misconduct you “need to have really hard evidence” while also complaining that “I could say that I’m the most bullied person in the world.”
One year into the #MeToo moment, it is a good time to ask if anything has changed, and whether that change is for the better.
The big takeaway is that things have changed, and there is a recognition that things need to change even more. Public opinion surveys clearly show that Americans believe this is a serious problem. Surveys of human resource managers show that a third of them have changed their practices on this issue — because they believe a workplace culture that tolerates sexual harassment lowers both morale and productivity. At the same time, these HR managers also recognize that more needs to be done. Which is good, because this has probably been a tough year for the HR folks:
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reports a surge in sexual harassment filings. And, according to Bloomberg, “at least 425 prominent people across industries have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct, a broad range of behavior that spans from serial rape to lewd comments and abuse of power.”
Of course, most change also generates backlashes, particularly if new norms are in the process of being created. #MeToo has had more than its share of backlash, as the Kavanaugh case demonstrated. As one human resource management essay noted, “Uncertainty of what constitutes sexual harassment has made some men uncomfortable around female co-workers and wary about how to navigate changing workplace dynamics.”
Some guys think this shows how #MeToo has gone too far. The economist in me, however, sees this as an example of the long-standing tax on working women trying to navigate a professional environment in which the threats can range from possible sexual assault to the accumulation of minor slights and inconveniences.
As I noted last November, “as a straight, middle-aged guy, this topic seems more than a little awkward to broach right now. Which means that, for the past month or so, I’ve gotten a small taste of what it’s like to be a professional woman trying to live like an ordinary human being.” No one likes to have their taxes raised, so it is unsurprising to me that so many men, accustomed to an environment in which life was considerably easier, are resisting change.
Indeed, the basic problem with where we are as a country is that everyone feels their taxes have been raised on this issue. The Ford saga suggests that powerful men can still denigrate testimony if they find it to be politically inconvenient. The tax on women persists. At the same time, some men resent the fact that they now have to be aware of long-standing habits that might prove to be more controversial now.
This problem is not going to disappear anytime soon. There are some best practices that can improve the current moment, but in the long run I suspect there are two things that will need to happen for the #MeToo movement to achieve fundamental change. Women will need to continue to advance in the workplace to the point where they occupy positions of power and responsibility. Workplace cultures can change with the institution of new norms, but that is much easier when the workplace is more heterogeneous.
Second, people are going to need to exercise political voice on this question. That comes through organizing, networking, peaceful protests, campaign contributions, running for office and most important of all, voting on this issue.
Things are better than they were a year ago. They are also more contentious. That is how social change works.