The #MeToo movement has changed behaviour in New Zealand workplaces. It's never going to alter the way some people think, says Rachel Hopkins, chief executive of Diversity Works. It has, however, improved behaviour in the workplace.

One of the best examples of change in New Zealand is the New Zealand Defence Force, says Hopkins.

The NZDF has had a chequered past when it comes to tolerating sexual harassment. Yet its Operation RESPECT launched in 2016 has tackled the issues head on, reducing sexual harassment and harmful sexual behaviour.

"They put a line in the sand and put proper research and support into training 11,000 people face-to-face in sexual ethics," says Hopkins.


"By doing that they made it really easy for people to call out the behaviour (and reduce) bystander tolerance."

#MeToo is a movement against sexual harassment and sexual assault. It emerged on Twitter and then spread following sexual abuse allegations against Hollywood director Harvey Weinstein. Actress Alyssa Milano sent out the very first tweet with #MeToo, which led to high profile celebrities coming forward with their own stories.

The #MeToo movement took off shortly afterwards with broadcaster Alison Mau, who had experienced sexual harassment, kicking off #MeTooNZ.

In 2016 before #MeToo, and then in its wake in 2018 US academics Stefanie K. Johnson Ksenia Keplinger, Jessica F. Kirk and Liza Barnes surveyed more than 250 women to measure sexual harassment along three dimensions: gender harassment, unwanted sexual attention, and sexual coercion. The latter survey found that fewer women were reporting new incidents of sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention following the #MeToo movement.

The academics' work was published in the Harvard Business Review. One interviewee commented that seeing others come forward made her feel validated instead of vindicated.

In New Zealand Next magazine commissioned a survey in 2018 that found 82 per cent of the sample had been victim to either sexual violence or harassment.

For 66 per cent, it happened the first time when they were aged under 18. The Next survey was not specifically about workplaces.

Carol Harrington, senior lecturer at Victoria University's school of social and cultural studies, says the main change in New Zealand is that people are more willing to talk about it and to admit being a victim. "It is a normalisation in a sense that no one feels they are the only one," the sexual violence politics researcher says.


In the workplace #MeToo is not so much about what people think, says Hopkins. It is behaviours that impact other people.

"You can't change what people think. You need to change the standard of behaviour you can tolerate," she says. "For me that is the key if you are talking about [#MeToo] in a workplace environment."

Harrington agrees and says it is the behaviour in the workplace that matters, not what is going on in the perpetrator's inner psyche. "If their behaviour changes due to standards of conduct that is good."

While some employers/employees have woken up to sexual harassment in the workplace as a result of #MeToo, many people, especially women, have always known it was there. "As a woman I have always seen it," says Hopkins. The continuum starts with sexist language, so-called jokes and goes all the way to criminal behaviour at the other end.

What has begun to be noticed more in the workplace, says Hopkins, is the lower end of that continuum. "It is the impact sexist language and stereotypes and jokes have on certain groups and on women."

While there has been an improvement thanks to #MeToo, says Hopkins, the only appropriate level is zero. "It shouldn't be happening in the workplace."

Some unintended consequences have arisen that may have been influenced by #MeToo.

The US academics reported that one aspect of their data suggested workplaces may be seeing a "backlash effect" or an increase in hostility toward women.

A survey of more than 11,000 working adults in the US and UK found other unintended consequences that might be linked to #MeToo.

It suggested that men — particularly those in senior roles — were pulling back from interacting with women at work, depriving them of the formal and informal mentorship that can help their careers.

On a more positive note, Diversity Works has seen an increase in organisations working to make it easier for victims to report incidents. Many have revamped their policies, processes and procedures and ramped up training for people managers to be able to take disclosures and know how to handle them.
"A huge amount of effort has been made by these organisations," says Hopkins.

The #MeToo effect

● The #MeToo movement has led to larger numbers of victims speaking up and seeking counselling

● Employers are flocking to create new policies, processes and procedures

● What matters is behaviour, not the perpetrator's psyche

● Some unintended consequences have arisen from #MeToo