#MeToo Moment Exposes Sexual Harassment, But Will Real Change Happen?

By Julia Prodis Sulek and Martha Ross The Mercury News

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) With so many recent sexual harassment scandals permeating universities, board rooms and political campaigns is #MeToo just another trending-but-soon-to-be-eclipsed hashtag? Or have we arrived at a watershed moment for women?

The Mercury News

In the wake of the Harvey Weinstein Hollywood sexual abuse scandal, Facebook and Twitter feeds have been lighting up for days with women's #MeToo horror stories, forcing the country to confront the pervasiveness of powerful men weaponizing sex and controlling the fates of countless women.

Along with Hollywood starlets Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, Reese Witherspoon adding celebrity testimonials to Weinstein's abuse, women in California politics are sharing their own humiliating experiences at the hands of fellow legislators and lobbyists, with more than 140 signing an open letter stating, "We're done with this."

But with so many recent sexual harassment scandals permeating universities, board rooms and political campaigns from the Silver Screen to Silicon Valley to Sacramento, is #MeToo just another trending-but-soon-to-be-eclipsed hashtag? Or have we arrived at a watershed moment for women that could finally force a culture shift?

"In the last decade or so, every once in a while there's a big sexual harassment case and it dies down. But I feel like this time, there's a lot of momentum," said Elizabeth Yin, founder of the venture firm Hustle Fund.

She left 500 Startups in June to protest the company's handling of a colleague's sexual harassment claim against its founder. "I personally know, just from experience in this industry, there are a lot of cases. But I had no idea until I saw that pretty much every woman in my Facebook feed has been affected. It's mind-blowing."

Kathleen Gutierrez, a doctoral student at UC Berkeley who in early 2016 came forward publicly about a professor's behavior, called the #MeToo campaign "invigorating."

"When I saw it, I thought, 'just bring it,'" she said, "because this is exactly what we need right now."

Six of 26 female state legislators signed the letter published in the Los Angeles Times, including Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia, a Democrat representing Bell Gardens in Southern California.

The letter didn't out the harassers, but it put Sacramento on notice. Garcia, for one, has been trying for years to raise the issue of what she calls "rape culture" in California's Capitol, the groping, the inappropriate advances, the need to make sure a "buddy" has her back at events where alcohol is served. But she was often dismissed as overreacting.

"It's empowering to have other women there with me and not having to be out there alone," she said. "I'm encouraged by the calls I received saying, 'I don't know how to help, but I want to help.'"

The meteoric fall of Weinstein, one of Hollywood's titans, began after a New York Times article revealed decades of sexual misconduct. Within two weeks, he had been fired from his film company and become the subject of criminal investigations from LA to New York to London, accused of sexually assaulting six women.

If change really is afoot, it would be a remarkable shift from just a year ago this month when Donald Trump's comments about grabbing women by the genitals was dismissed as locker room talk and he was elected president weeks later.

Fears that that sort of "toxic masculinity" not only would be normalized but would embolden men to behave similarly led in part to the Women's March across the country in January and a host of grass-roots protest movements.

"It's part of a continuum of women, generally, really having had enough," said Tanya Bakhru, San Jose State's associate professor of women, gender and sexuality studies. However, "to constantly be shifting this conversation back to women ignores that this is a man problem, this is a men-committing-sexual-violence problem."

While the #MeToo campaign is raising awareness, she said, "it shouldn't always be the responsibility of the person or the group who's experiencing the oppression to hold the responsibility for it. Straight people need to do more to end homophobia. Men need to do more to end sexism. White people need to do more to end racism. And that's the shift I'm seeing in the way people are understanding the issue of sexual violence."

Last summer, when scandals in Silicon Valley's venture capital world erupted, Greylock partner and LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman posted a "Decency Pledge" to encourage other investors to commit to treating women fairly.

And over the past week, men have been joining the #MeToo movement, offering a hashtag of their own: #HowIWillChange.

Recently, Bay Area political consultant Addisu Demissie, for one, asked his female Facebook friends to call him out if he's exhibited bad behavior toward them.

"I really want to be an ally in this but have to face that I have at some point in my career/life been the opposite of that," he wrote. "And I honestly want to know what I did or didn't do so I can be better, next time."

The fact that many of the responses were comments like "love you bunches" suggests he's on the right track.

"I'm happy that the awareness is there. I can pledge and I have seen other men pledge to do better, but I don't know if it's actually going to happen," Demissie said in an interview. "I don't want to be cynical. I want to be hopeful. But there's hundreds of years of culture and thousands of years of history that go into this. It will take systemic change for something to be done."

In fact, the #MeToo hashtag didn't just start last week with the Weinstein affair. It has been circulating for a decade, first in 2006 by Tarana Burke, who had experienced sexual assault and wanted to bring attention to the problem. A similar hashtag, #YesAllWomen, has been around for months.

Over the past year in Silicon Valley, however, there is a growing list of consequences.

Sexual misconduct allegations and the way companies handled them led to the ouster of several Silicon Valley leaders, from VC executives Justin Caldbeck of Binary Capital to Dave McClure of 500 Startups. Over the past two years, UC Berkeley has been plagued with sexual misconduct scandals and San Jose State put an education professor on leave who recently resigned.

"People are getting removed left and right, often they're not very high-profile," Yin said. "More women are brave in coming forward."

It's not always easy, however, with many feeling ashamed or being reluctant to portray themselves as victims and fearful they will be retaliated against. A recent Equal Employment Opportunity Commission poll found about 75 percent of workplace harassment incidents are never reported.

And unlike other state government employees, legislative staffers have no whistleblower protections, leaving them vulnerable if they report sexual harassment or other ethical violations of their bosses.

Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez, a Republican from Lake Elsinore, has tried four times to change that. This year and last, her bill passed the Assembly unanimously only to die quietly in the Senate appropriations committee with no explanation.

"If we don't do anything about this, it's all just a bunch of platitudes that frankly women are getting sick of hearing," said Melendez, a military veteran.

The Weinstein scandal has also brought renewed calls for accountability from previously scandal-plagued men like Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and Casey Affleck, who won last year's best actor Oscar despite being dogged by questions over a 2010 sexual harassment lawsuit.

If the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences could take the unprecedented step of ejecting Weinstein, "why not those men?" writers and many others on social media have asked.

Katherine Blakeman, communications director for the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, notes that people will take some cues from how Hollywood responds to such questions, given that the entertainment industry essentially "creates our culture."

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