What difference has #MeToo made to Australian working women, really?

Awareness is one thing, but the tangible difference #MeToo has made to the working lives of Australian women is more difficult to measure.

On the up-side,  those striving to make workplaces safe for women, and women feel safe to report harassment, say #MeToo has fostered a sense victims will be listened to.

Deloitte's Juliet Bourke says #MeToo has made women feel sexual harassment complaints will be heard, but consequences for perpetrators need to be seen to happen.

Deloitte’s Juliet Bourke says #MeToo has made women feel sexual harassment complaints will be heard, but consequences for perpetrators need to be seen to happen.Credit:Louise Kennerley

But there is still much fear and scepticism around whether complaining will help, or cause harm to the woman's career.

Deloitte's Juliet Bourke, diversity author and TedX speaker, says #MeToo has created "a heightened sense among women of empowerment and community", and "the feeling that if they did witness or experience something in the nature of sexual harassment their complaint would be heard".

But the fact not all powerful perpetrators are seen to face real world consequences is tempering working women's sense #MeToo has brought measurable change.

"There is definite interest in what's happening in the US around [Supreme Court candidate] Brett Kavanaugh. There's a question mark in people's minds: yes, I will be heard but will that really make a difference?" Ms Bourke says.

"I do think [women] are feeling empowered across the board, women feel if they did have an experience of sexual harassment, their complaint would not be brushed under the carpet, it would be fully investigated.

"But they are uncertain what would be the consequences of that … The symbols of change need to be really strong."

"If people become aware there are no consequences, it will bury the #MeToo movement … We are still at a turning point moment, we have not had the full story yet."

Julie McKay, the former gender adviser to the Australian Defence Force, and now chief diversity and inclusion head at services firm PwC, has noted employers placing increased importance on the issue of sexual harassment, and a shift from it being a matter for HR to a foreground concern for company leaders.

PwC diversity head, and former ADF gender advisor, Julie McKay, says women still fear complaining about sexual harassment.

PwC diversity head, and former ADF gender advisor, Julie McKay, says women still fear complaining about sexual harassment. Credit:Alex Ellinghausen

"There is greater awareness this is a business and leadership issue, as opposed to where it was positioned a year ago," says Ms McKay, former executive director of UN Women Australia.

"A greater number of clients are asking us to help them train managers to understand how to support a disclosure, how to ensure policies are robust, and be victim-centric in the way they go through the process."

More employers are investing in bystander awareness and first-responder training to ensure complainants are "not discounted or dismissed". She is disappointed, though, that comments that "false claims" of sexual harassment are "destroying careers" (of men) persist.

"There just isn't any basis for those comments, it's the same kind of rumour that exists in the family violence space, [alleged perpetrators say] women make it up; there just isn't any data to back that up.

"We know those who claim harassment are often the ones who have ended up leaving a job and being persecuted for making a claim, so why would you make it up?"

BHP's principal, diversity and inclusion, Fiona Vines, says she can see the difference #MeToo is making.

"There's no question it has created a different kind of context where women are being listened to and being believed, definitely.

BHP diversity boss Fiona Vines says more women are talking about harassment experiences, thanks to #MeToo and more male leaders are listening.

BHP diversity boss Fiona Vines says more women are talking about harassment experiences, thanks to #MeToo and more male leaders are listening.Credit:Fairfax Media

"As a result of the #MeToo movement, leaders have no choice but to listen, because women are talking through a lot of channels".

"It has given women permission to talk about things they've never talked about…I'm feeling optimistic that there are organisations with leaders who acknowledge they have a challenge they need to address, and are serious about that, and prepared to do the work."

"But I'm not optimistic about sectors and companies where there isn't that understanding at the top, for example what we've seen playing out in federal politics recently."

Lendlease global head of diversity and Diversity Council of Australia board member Chris Lamb says one indicator #MeToo has meant something in the real, work world is that company directors are asking organisations for information and statistics around harassment complaints.

"[Directors] are very attuned to this issue, and I would think if a Mark McInness [former David Jones executive who left the company after a harassment complaint], or Tim Worner [Channel Seven CEO embroiled in a scandal after a sexual relationship with a former executive assistant] issue played out in 2018, it would play out very differently to the way either of those did.

"The instinct to protect the CEO and rationalise the behaviour, which I suspect played out in both those situations, would not be the first instinct of any director in 2018. They would absolutely want to understand both sides in way that hasn't been done previously."

Mr Lamb says he has seen men in workplaces "questioning some of their basic behaviour, some of the in-jokes and banter … and maybe questioning whether that's OK and acceptable, particularly in male-dominated industries".

"I am seeing that from a very genuine perspective, not people saying, 'this is political correctness gone mad'."

Diversity Council of Australia CEO, Lisa Annese, is not convinced, though, that #MeToo means more than a hashtag to working women yet. "We're just at the beginning," she says, "the good news is people are having conversations about [sexual harassment] … on the other hand the backlash is bigger than ever."

"If I had a penny for every time someone says, 'This is reverse sexism', or 'It's really dangerous to be a straight, white male', I would be really wealthy. The evidence just doesn't support that claim."

"We are still very much in the early stages of change."

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