Posted at 14:47h
First published in Your Weekend 10 March 2018 [See below for online link]
It’s quite hard being a lady-person. You can’t tell whether people want you to speak up, or shut up.
When news broke in February over alleged shenanigans at Russell McVeagh, one of the questions regularly asked was, “Why don’t women speak up sooner about sexual harassment and assault?”
So I posed that question on social media, and offered my own list of things said to me or to people I know when they’ve raised an issue in the workplace. Responses that range from “It didn’t happen”, to “it might have happened but you’re wrong to be bothered by it,” to “it definitely happened and that’s the way things are”.
And then I invited people to add their own examples of being diminished and dismissed when they’ve raised the issue. The responses came quickly, and they resonated with many. Broadly, they represented deflection (“Is everything ok at home?”), guilt-tripping (“Think of his family”), thinly veiled threats (“Are you sure you want to take this forward? This won’t help your career”), and the horrifying, “We thought he’d stopped doing that”.
So yes, one of the reasons women don’t speak up is that, when they do, they’re actively shushed in a multitude of ways. But that’s not the only thing that happens.
We are also told we’re speaking up The Wrong Way. When #MeToo went viral last October, women the world over (New Zealand included) shared their stories, often with no names used. “Too vague!” they were told. “Name and shame!” Yet when names were included in the avalanche of stories, women were accused of being too specific, conducting “social media witch-hunts” via “online lynch mobs”.
Or we tell our stories at The Wrong Time. Too soon, and it is morning-after regret. Years later, when we are older and braver, we are either vengeful or jumping on bandwagons.
And we tell our stories to The Wrong People. If it’s a crime, we must call the police, and commit to a legal process which can be as harmful as the harassment or assault itself. And if it’s not a crime, we should either suck it up, or report it to HR – in which case, see handy lines for diminishing and dismissing above.
When news arrived last week that investigative journalists want to hear New Zealand women’s #metoo stories, you’d think people might have been keen to support gathering that kind of data. You can’t manage what you don’t measure, right?
Instead, “women telling their stories” was equated with “dobbing in pervs”. Seriously, I can’t think of another issue – leaky homes, EQC claims, hospital waiting lists – where recording personal experiences would be characterised as rumour, innuendo, hearsay, and gossip. You have to wonder what people are afraid of.