‘Me Too’: These are the two words responsible for the shockwave that has reverberated around the world for the past few months. The ‘silence breakers’ – women who spoke out about abuse, assault and rape – were even named as the “person of the year” for 2017 by Time magazine. It could be argued that calls for an end to violence against women, next to equality in the workplace and a more gender-balanced representation in positions of power is nothing new in the fight led by women’s rights movements.
In other words, the ideas behind ‘Me Too’ are nothing new. But what is rather new about it lies in the unprecedented mass mobilisation and its potential of perhaps becoming the biggest revolution that has happened to women since the right to vote.
This uniqueness stems from a conjunction of specific factors. Firstly, the movement has irrevocably put a burning issue on the table that everyone knew about but did not want to address openly until now. Assaults on women were commonplace but were kept silent. Now, they are not only being made public but are also heavily challenged. We have seen an upsurge in solidarity amongst women from all parts of the world as a result of the emergence of a major shift in attitudes. In addition, the movement has proven exceptionally inclusive by rallying women from all walks of life against a common scourge thanks to the use of social media as a platform of expression accessible to everyone regardless of one’s socioeconomic background. While celebrities used their fame to propel the #MeToo into the spotlight, it has subsequently empowered women from all countries, ages, sectors and social groups who have followed suit in seeking to tackle the issue of violence against women. This sense of universal sisterhood has been a vital element in exposing the huge scope of the problem of sexual harassment and assault. In a short span of time, women’s rights issues and gender equality issues have aroused a rapidly growing interest in public debate. ‘Feminism’ became Merriam-Webster’s word of 2017 as the most looked-up word of the year in its online dictionary. Thirdly, more women are identifying themselves as feminists.
the movement has proven exceptionally inclusive by rallying women from all walks of life against a common scourge thanks to the use of social media as a platform of expression accessible to everyone regardless of one’s
This is a trend which is even more pronounced amongst young women: 69 per cent of British teenage girls would describe themselves as such according to a new study by the media agency UM London. Finally, thanks to the sharing of their experiences, women are being believed. For the first time, it seems that men are understanding what women have suffered for centuries.
Clearly, there is no doubt about this change of mood. But, beyond the headlines and perceptions, we need a change in reality and therefore a change in policy and processes. In order to translate this movement into social progress in curbing sexual harassment, achieving gender equality across all domains is crucial. A good place to start is with the traditionally male-dominated hierarchies. Women are severely underrepresented in decision-making processes at all levels, even in sectors where they represent the majority in terms of numbers. In October 2017, women accounted for 7.1% of board chairs and 5.5% of CEOs (European Commission, 2018). If teams and managers were more balanced between men and women, there would be more likely to be less sexual assault and harassment. Moreover, a crucial element lies in involving men. When UN Secretary General Antonio Gueterres openly called himself “a proud feminist”, this already sent out a strong signal. The fact remains however that, according to a special Eurobarometer on gender equality (2017), only 35% of men approve of a man identifying himself as a feminist.
In the same vein, figures demonstrate that, overall, women are more likely than men to think that promoting gender equality is important for them personally, for the economy and to ensure a fair democratic society (European Commission, 2018).
In the light of the above figures, we have very little to cheer about over a century after the emergence of the first women’s movements. As underscored by the 2017 gender equality index produced by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), gender equality is progressing at snail’s pace in Europe across all sectors. Therefore, in the wake of the European Parliament elections, progressive parties across all member states need to demonstrate through deeds that they stand behind the #MeToo voices. A movement of this magnitude simply cannot fall on deaf ears. Some voices represented by the letter written by the French actress Catherine Deneuve may claim that the #MeToo movement has gone too far by igniting an unjustified witchhunt and clipping women’s “right to be bothered”. But where the movement has not gone far enough is in the political transformation of its underlying demands. ‘Me Too’ movements have been very successful in turning a simple tweet into an unprecedented mass movement condemning the persistence of gender equalities epitomised by violence against women. Whether this historical turning point will turn into the new women’s rights revolution lies in the hands of our political representatives and decisionmakers.