Amal Clooney was touted as the star speaker for this year’s Watermark Conference for Women, but the heartiest welcome on Friday morning went to investigative reporter Jodi Kantor, one of the two New York Times reporters who broke the story that help start the #MeToo movement.
Addressing a largely female crowd in Silicon Valley, Kantor spoke about the trials of uncovering movie mogul Harvey Weinstein’s alleged abuses over a period of six months and posed a vexing question for the movement: Now that the world has gone through “the moral horror of the past 20 weeks of discoveries,” as she described it, where do we go from here?
“The question I want you to ask yourselves is what will we tell our grandchildren about this period we just lived through? Are we going to say ‘It was kind of strange … All of sudden there was all of this attention to this issue, we watched as man after man lost his job, and then our attention changed, the issue went away, we stopped talking about it’?” she said to the crowd. “Or are we going to be able to say to our grandchildren, ‘I was there when the walls came down’?”
Kantor argued that two of the greatest revelations from the deluge of stories that women have shared is that enduring sexual assault or harassment is not really an individual experience. Rather, it’s part of a phenomenon that affects women in every country, industry and income class. She also said that the offenses were often bigger than one individual; they’re part of an elaborate “machinery” that protects men and silences women, from multi-million-dollar payoffs to HR departments that didn’t actually provide resources when humans need them.
Kantor suggested that women take a hard look at those workplace safety nets and a legal system “that doesn’t really fully protect women from sexual harassment,” noting that many of the stories that resonated widely in the court of public opinion might have gone nowhere in an actual court. She also noted how ineffective sexual harassment trainings can be for workers, especially when companies are only implementing them to give themselves legal cover. (Experts in diversity and inclusion say that workers are not only inclined to treat them as jokes but can be inspired to make offensive jokes they wouldn’t have but for that training.)
“These are the things that keep sexual harassment in place, in big offices and in small ones, on the left and on the right,” Kantor said. “It now seems there’s an entire system that’s been built to not give women a voice on these issues.”
To move forward, she argued, advocates must decide how to deploy limited resources, whether to focus on ridding the workplace of sexually charged jokes or instead spend time targeting grander abuses of power. She suggested reformers should avoid lumping every offense into one big bucket, regardless of severity, and consider what repercussions should be in “mild to moderate” cases.
“A lot of women victims we have talked to, they’re not sure about zero tolerance policies,” she said, which can actually have a chilling effect. If the choice is enduring something a bit uncomfortable or ending someone’s career, many women might opt for the former.
Kantor pointed to discrete problems, like doing a better job of alerting a new employer when a “serious serial harasser” leaves one workplace for another. And she flicked at trickier, bigger issues, like how to make sure the benefits of this cultural awakening are afforded to women in positions of insecurity, far from corridors of power: “For a female fast food employee who is currently being harassed in the workplace, is anything really different for her now than it was six months ago? Is it really?”
Perhaps most of all, she said, the way to further the movement was to continue speaking out. “We can take those bad memories and convert them into something all of us can be proud of,” she said, “and that can last a very long time.”