‘Gradual unfolding for 40 years’: The sociology behind the #MeToo movement

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On Oct. 5, 2017, the New York Times published an article detailing allegations of sexual harassment against Harvey Weinstein from multiple women who had worked under him. In the months that followed, more and more women began to come forward with allegations of sexual misconduct in the workplace.

The allegations and the movement to end sexual misconduct began to garner attention and support in a way they had not before. The movement made waves through social media in the form of the #MeToo hashtag — created by the MeToo movement founded in 2006 — inspiring many women to come forward and speak about their experiences with sexual assault and harassment.

Many of the allegations have since led to the firing or resignation of powerful executives in companies across the nation and left many wondering what has changed in our culture that has given the movement more momentum and support than ever.

“Social movements … tend to be started by something that shocks the system. In this case it appears that the Harvey Weinstein event acted as a shock,” said Lauren Edelman, a professor at the UC Berkeley School of Law who has studied the ineffectiveness of organizational policies designed to prevent sexual harassment.

According to Edelman, the movement was able to spread quickly because of the potency of social media in modern society, which allows people to identify easily with social movements.

Although the Weinstein allegations were the spark, campus psychology professor Dacher Keltner believes that the movement is a result of a “gradual unfolding for 40 years.”

It took 40 years for people to realize that numerous forces in society play a role in subjugating women, according to Keltner, who said these forces include things like advertising, harassment, pay imbalances, stereotypes and prejudice.

“It has (taken) so long because women faced skeptical people in power — bosses, journalists, judges, etc — who were blind to the seriousness of harassment and assault,” Keltner said in an email. “In the past 40 years we at last are seeing women rise to positions of power and enter the workforce with full force.”

According to Keltner, sexual harassment is often perpetrated by those with power. Given that throughout history, as well as in the present, men are more likely to occupy positions of power, Keltner said men have been more likely to commit sexual harassment.

Keltner added that men tend to be more coercive, manipulative and aggressive in how they use power and that they sexualize social contexts more than women do, which can lead them to committing sexual harassment.

In order to reverse the culture of harassment, both Keltner and Edelman agree that a change in leadership is needed.

“When you have top level executives who themselves are sexual harassers, they are going to promote an environment where other men think it’s okay,” Edelman said, adding that sexual harassment should result in major consequences such as losing a job.

The changes that will ultimately have to be made to end a culture that allows sexual harassment, Keltner said, will include having more women in power and more women feeling empowered to speak up.

Edelman acknowledged, however, that ending sexual harassment requires a cultural change, not necessarily a policy change, which makes stopping harassment hard.

“I think the MeToo movement, and Weinstein et al, has made all of us aware how pervasive sexual harassment is and how repellent and abusive the actions can be,” Keltner said in his email. “We can no longer cover over sexual harassment and assault with euphemisms … instead we must grapple with the gravity of harassing behavior.”

Contact Sabrina Dong at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Sabrina_Dong_.