In October 2017, the #MeToo hashtag was mentioned in 12 million posts in just 24 hours. You’d have to be living under a rock by now to not know some of the most basic and obvious rules about what is and isn’t okay when it comes to colleague-on-colleague behaviour in the 21st century.
But could apps be helpful in putting consent and complaints in terms we can all understand? Or does putting tech into the mix run the risk of further complicating an already incredibly complex issue?
Back in 2016, former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson rocked the world with the first in a wave of scandals that caused the #MeToo scandal to break. In short, she filed a lawsuit against Fox News chairman, Roger Ailes, alleging she had been fired for refusing his sexual advances. After denying this exchange ever happened, Ailes was eventually forced to resign when more than a dozen women stepped forward with similar stories - and Carlson received a substantial sum of money in compensation.
But that wasn’t the end of her extraordinary story - which would become the basis of the film Bombshell (2019) starring Nicole Kidman. Carlson soon found she was receiving thousands of messages of support, many from women from all walks of life alleging similar harassment from their workplace colleagues and bosses.
According to the BBC, the former anchor was required to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) by Fox as part of the settlement. And, for women in her situation, this is where the real problems often begin…
WHY DO WOMEN STAY SILENT?
If the argument exists that consent is not black and white, that flood of #MeToo hashtags sure was. As an astonishing number of women shared their stories on social media, the truth finally started to emerge. Sexual misconduct didn’t die out with the Mad Men era - and it’s not particularly rare. It happens to ordinary women we know every day, and is most often perpetrated by ordinary men (although I’m sure a few high-profile names spring to mind as well).
If this was news to men, it certainly wasn’t to women. The lack of reporting was never a case of sexual conduct being ok, or fading away; it was simply that it happens so often that many were desensitised to its impact.
One critique often offered up in the press is that, if the issue was so serious, the women in question ‘should have come forward sooner’. But we know there are all sorts of extremely valid reasons women are dissuaded from reporting misconduct. The BBC reports:
“The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission found in 2016 that while anywhere from 25-85% of women had experienced workplace harassment, three-quarters of them were unwilling to report their experiences.”
Carlson’s experience with her NDA showed her just why so many women stay silent. Even if they are believed, even if they get compensation, they are likely to be treated differently by co-workers to the point where they are forced to leave. Unable to speak out, all future employers see is an awkward gap on their CV. This can have a devastating impact on their long-term employability, and their lives…
The BBC quotes recent research indicating that those who do speak out overwhelmingly regret doing so: "Some 82% were retaliated against, 60% lost their jobs, 17% lost their homes, and as many as 10% attempted suicide.”
Confronted with these statistics, it’s easy to see why many simply decide it’s not worth pursuing the matter when someone at work crosses the line.
THE ROLE OF HR
It may not be pretty, but HR departments often put the reputation of their companies first. Understandably, many don’t agree with this notion. The BBC quotes senior policy advisor for employment relations at the UK's Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, Rachel Suff:
"It's the role of HR to protect individuals from sexual harassment. HR is meant to be pro-active and inclusive. If you're just using a third party ombudsman, that's not dealing with the underlying situation. Employers have a legal responsibility to protect their workers' welfare".
Everyone has the right to do their jobs without fear of harassment or sexual misconduct. Could technology support Human Resources in handling complaints in a fair and reasonable way?
SHOW ME THE TECH!
Two companies have created mobile phone apps aimed at supporting employees who wish to report workplace misconduct. Vault allows workers to report unwanted advances in real time. It was created by founder Neta Meidav because of her own experiences of harassment in her twenties. One setting also reveals to users whether there are others suffering at the hands of a specific colleague. The BBC quotes Meidav:
"Reporters don't see how many other complaints there are, but they do have the power to say, I will only report this if there are others suffering similar things," she says. Crucially, they also have the choice to remain anonymous. Meidav says that dozens of companies have taken up the technology, and that she strongly believes in its power to rewrite the tired old corporate narrative:
"I definitely would have reported if I had known I was not the only one. It would have changed everything for me," she says. "It is not just the solidarity it provides. It is also the credibility that comes with it, knowing I will be believed [...] What we are aiming to do is to see that things are resolved before they become the next lawsuit [...] I can reassure companies that this has not caused an avalanche of complaints. No one has been overthrown from their chair. Usually it has helped sift through minor problems and complaints and stopped them getting out of hand."
While Vault requires buy in from companies, the Silicon Valley creation NotMe is available to anyone. Users can submit uncomfortable emails, video and text messages through the platform in real time, and the app will alert the company.
Then, there is the tech keeping things remarkably simple. Here in the UK, BT are proposing a new 888 “Walk Me Home” number that women can call when walking home alone. Equipped with GPS that can trigger an alert if they don’t make it home in time, the opt-in service is designed to help women make it home safely. Naturally, there is criticism surrounding the need for such tech, with some calling it a sticking plaster solution to the deep-rooted problem of violence. But, on the other hand, anything that helps people feel safer and more supported can only be a good thing.
Similar apps include the Hollie Guard, created by the Hollie Gazzard Trust, set up in memory of 20-year-old Hollie who was murdered by her ex-boyfriend in 2014. The app has been downloaded more than 300,000 times and includes the option of a paid feature that will alert emergency services if needed.
As noted by Taylor Ring, some companies are going so far as to implement dedicated tech for workplace training:
“Vantage Point takes a new approach to teaching employees about sexual harassment through situational awareness using virtual reality. Psychological rewards are being used for engaging in positive actions by showing the employee how it positively affects the situation and environment when he or she makes the right choice. Data from the program actually shows an employee’s empathy level.”
Taylor Ring goes on to point out that this has many implications when it comes to weeding out potential future bad apples, but equally has considerable ethical implications on all sides.
There are many technologies rising up to take on this vast issue. Designed to eliminate human biases and reactions while allowing the interviewee to speak freely, London AI startup Spot uses chatbot technology to guide anonymous interviews with those who report harassment or assault. Simply by removing the fear that can surround describing traumatic events, it has shown to decrease inaccurate reporting by 40 per cent.
Similarly, Taylor Ring reports:
“Bravely is using the safety of anonymity to increase actions taken by companies when there are employee relationship issues [...] Affected employees are paired up with certified coaches, experienced HR partners outside their company, and a corporate ombudsman who all work with the employee to design a plan to resolve the sexual harassment (or other issue). It pauses the direct contact with your HR department until you are confident about how to make your official report.”
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Clearly, the tech industry is still working out some kinks. But, if leveraged in the right way, solutions such as these could be for the benefit of everyone - rampant misogynists aside. Everyone, no matter how small their complaint may seem, is entitled to be taken seriously when their boundaries are violated - everywhere, but especially when in a professional environment. And everyone, no matter how badly behaved they have been, is entitled to a proper investigation into their alleged misconduct. Tech such as this goes a long way towards achieving both.
But, I think it’s worth pointing out that we have to proceed with caution. Consent around what happens with our own bodies is such a nuanced, personal and sensitive issue. Can we really trust it in the hands of a machine? And isn’t it a depressing thought that we might have to?
Silicon Valley might have their work cut out for them when it comes to unblurring the lines, but as pioneers they have a responsibility, as we all do, to ensure people are treated with respect, fairness and dignity in the workplace. If certain headlines are to believed, the issue could be closer to home than many of those in the business may be prepared to admit.
Meanwhile, the BBC reports that Gretchen Carlson is hopeful that a bill she has championed around the issue passes through Congress this year:
"We're reaching out to corporations one by one, and we're saying join our fight. Get on the right side of history [...] It will be getting through to our younger generations, and finally getting them to respect women in the way that we believed we had already achieved [...] I had no way of knowing back then that we would be in this cultural revolution right now. I was the first to jump off the cliff on July 6, 2016, and now the world has been awakened. There is no turning back."