TIME magazine revealed its Person of the Year this week, granting the distinction not to an individual but rather to a group of women it calls “the silence breakers,” who have spoken up against sexual harassment in their workplaces in recent months. This includes the women in entertainment, media, and technology who exposed prominent men in their industries as serial sexual abusers; as well as the vast numbers of women who came out around the world with personal stories of sexual harassment on social media through the #MeToo hashtag campaign.
The revelation of these women’s stories, along with the growing number of famous men who have been fired from their jobs and publicly disgraced due to sexual misconduct allegations, has engendered a palpable shift in the way we as a society talk about sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. The shocking revelations of decades of sexual misconduct by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in October may have been the event that triggered the avalanche of allegations and public admissions of guilt:
The response to the Weinstein allegations has shaped the way people view women who come forward. In a TIME/SurveyMonkey online poll of American adults conducted Nov. 28–30, 82% of respondents said women are more likely to speak out about harassment since the Weinstein allegations. Meanwhile, 85% say they believe the women making allegations of sexual harassment.
TIME also touches on the impact this conversation is having on gender relations in the workplace, noting that it is making men think harder (and feel some anxiety) about whether the interactions they have with their female colleagues are appropriate, and worry about crossing lines where they hadn’t before:
Jonathan Segal, a partner at the Philadelphia law firm Duane Morris, who specializes in workplace training, says he hears that confusion in the conversations men are now having among themselves. “It’s more like, ‘I wonder if I should tell someone they look nice, I wonder when it’s O.K. to give a hug, I wonder when I should be alone with someone in a room,’” he says.
This uncertainty can be corrosive. While everyone wants to smoke out the serial predators and rapists, there is a risk that the net may be cast too far. What happens when someone who makes a sexist joke winds up lumped into the same bucket as a boss who gropes an employee? Neither should be encouraged, but nor should they be equated.
The new focus on sexual harassment also has many employers bracing for an increased likelihood of allegations and lawsuits from within their organizations. In addition to stepping up precautions around employee social events like holiday parties, TIME adds that employers are buying employment practices liability insurance, sales of which Nationwide reports were 15 percent higher this year than last. We are also seeing an impact on corporate governance, increased involvement on the part of boards, and even a shift in the value and focus of businesses’ brands:
Corporate boards, wary of alienating female employees and customers and of drawing bad press, have been among the quickest to make changes. Uber, for example, which built its reputation on a willingness to flout norms, used to be a guiding light for small startups. Now nobody is pitching their company as the next Uber, says [former Uber engineer Susan] Fowler. “There’s a shift to, ‘We’re not disrupting anymore. We’re trying to build something that’s good for consumers and treats employees fairly.’” It’s a start.