* #metoo, Culture, Featured

#MeToo – starting to bridge the gap

Men and women live in parallel universes when it comes to experiences of sexual harassment. Can talking about it make a difference?

When #MeToo exploded, I felt overwhelmed by emotion. Indeed, often several different waves of emotion in the course of reading a single story. I felt sadness at the events being described. I felt despair about how familiar many of the stories were – familiar because of personal experience and familiar because of stories told to me by friends of their own experiences. I felt admiration for the women going public with their stories. I felt excited by what I felt was the beginning of a significant cultural shift. I felt anger at the reporting of some of the stories and disbelief at some of the reactions I heard from colleagues or family when the stories started rolling in.

I had many discussions with my women friends around this time. We dissected the personal accounts that were being reported and the fall out. For a time it seemed as if I could think of (and talk of) nothing else.

But as the days and weeks went by, and the stories continued to be told and talked about, I found myself wondering why there hadn’t been much deep discussion about #MeToo with the men in my life.

Of course we had spoken about the news stories – the allegations that were front page news – but nothing more than that. There was no discussion about what life is like for women, as a result of sexual harassment. No discussion about how broad the problem was, and whether things were changing, and how things might change faster.

I wondered about my father. What was he thinking about all of this? Was he worried about whether my mother had experienced such things (did he already know that she had)? Did he think about me, his only daughter, and whether I had similar stories to tell? He knew of at least one incident of more than a decade ago, because I was very distressed about it at the time and sought his advice about what to do. “Tell the guy to fuck off”, he said, “and don’t make any formal complaint to your boss”. But now, in the midst of #MeToo, why was I having so many searching discussions about the issues with the women in my circle (whether they be colleagues, friends or family) and so few with their male counterparts?

I decided to open up a dialogue with my father about it. We were talking about the allegations against Geoffrey Rush, and I broadened the discussion from that point. My mother happened to be there, which was terrific because then we both had the opportunity to talk through some of our experiences with my father. And my father was able to speak about what he had observed, particularly in the course of his working life. We talked about how men can sometimes be oblivious to what is going on for women in the same workplace, because sexual harassment is often hidden from others and occurs in a way that makes it hard to speak out.

We also spoke about the advice he gave me, all those years ago – advice I had ignored, in that I did make a formal complaint.  And I told him that recently I had wondered whether his advice was the best advice after all. Why? Because I have learned that sometimes the best way to handle a difficult situation is directly and straight away, and because the workplace investigation was pathetic and humiliating.

I opened up a dialogue with my partner, too. We had also been speaking about the news stories, a lot, but I hadn’t told him much about my own experiences. It is painful to talk about these things, and often the reaction you receive is not what you are expecting or wanting. I think I was apprehensive about what his response might be to some of the things I had gone through. Certainly, it was not an easy conversation. But we talked it through, and came out the other side with both of us knowing a little more about each other.

Perhaps the most interesting thing to come out of all of this, for me, was a dialogue that opened up at work. This time, the conversation wasn’t triggered by me, but by a senior male colleague interested in progressing gender equality in our workplace.

He had brought a couple of groups of men together to start a conversation about action on gender equality, on the basis that men (not just women) needed to start taking an active role in achieving gender equality.

One of the groups decided they wanted to involve women in the discussion, at the outset. Women were invited to the round-table, and although the conversation wasn’t expressly directed to #MeToo, inevitably the discussion involved personal accounts from several women of sexual harassment. The men around the table expressed shock. Some said they thought “that kind of thing happened years ago but not now”. Others said they thought “that kind of thing was common in other industries, or in Hollywood, but not in our industry”. There was also shock at the stories themselves – the often quite unbelievable detail about precisely how these things happen (unbelievable, that is, until it happens to you or someone you know). And I think there was a lot of soul-searching, too. Some of these men stopped me as we left the first group meeting, and expressed surprise that they could know me for so long and yet not know about this other reality I had experienced. I had a phone call from more than one male member of the group, simply to thank me for sharing my stories and for opening up his eyes to the different ways in which life in our profession is experienced by women.

For me, and I think for some of the other women at the table, it was cathartic to be able to talk these things through – say them out loud – to a group that included men. For too long, we had told these stories over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee to each other, to other women, but felt unable to share our experiences more broadly. Yet here we were, with a group of men who were sitting around the table with us precisely because they wanted to understand what they could do to help achieve gender equality in our workplace, and wanted to listen to our stories and our views about these usually-private matters. I attended a couple of these meetings, and at one of them we used the phrase “parallel universe” to explain what we were coming to understand. Women in our profession were living in a parallel universe to the men. While on the outside it appeared we were all the same, doing the same job in the same way, privately we were experiencing an entirely different reality.

In bridging the gap between these parallel universes – these alternate realities – it is important for women and men to do a deceptively simple thing: talk more.

Have more conversations about #MeToo, about sexual harassment, about what life is like for a woman living in a world where these experiences are familiar. Go further, if you can, and talk about how it feels to be a woman in a world where sexual violence against women is an epidemic.

For men taking part in these discussions, I offer a few suggestions. Listen, and then keep listening. Be aware that it can be very hard for women to talk about these issues. Expect emotion.  Take care not to say something that is or sounds like a rejection of what you are hearing. “I just don’t believe sexual harassment happens that often” was something said to a friend of mine, by a male colleague, when she tried to discuss her own experiences for the first time. Needless to say, the discussion ended there. Don’t ask questions that come across as victim blaming (“but why didn’t you just walk away?”). You might have questions about what happened, but tread carefully. Think about how to frame what you are asking. Or perhaps don’t ask much at all, and listen some more. The simple act of hearing what women have experienced and how they feel about it is important in and of itself.

For women in these conversations, try to remember they can be difficult conversations for everyone involved. The person you are talking to may not know how to react, or what to say, and may respond in a way you find painful. If it is getting too hard, take a break and come back to the conversation if and when you feel ready.  It may be that the person you are talking to is not the right person to share your story with, after all.  But it is starting the dialogue that matters, because the dialogue can lead to more understanding, and more understanding is a positive step.  It might just help us effect the deeper cultural change that is needed.