If you’re a human being residing on planet earth, it’s quite likely you’ve heard of #MeToo and the flurry of allegations of sexual harassment and assault that have come with it. What began as a Hollywood scandal quickly spread to all parts of society, including our political institutions.
Never before has the issue been discussed so openly by so many people. In a year that started with the worldwide Women’s March, are women’s rights ‘having a moment’ and finally being taken seriously? Are we at a turning point?
“I do hope so,” says Terry Reintke, a German Greens MEP who has been at the forefront of fighting sexism and sexualised violence in the EU, particularly in the European Parliament - we’ll get to that in a minute.
“I think these mobilisations are also due to the fact that, despite the progress that has been made in the last 100 to 150 years, women are facing a backlash right now. Many authoritarian and anti-feminist tendencies are gaining momentum and becoming stronger in our society. This is the counter-mobilisation to this backlash and it’s urgently needed if we want to live in free and equal societies.”
Will #MeToo actually yield results, though? Will it end up being more than a catchy slogan? “That will be on us,” says Reintke. “Will we manage to apply enough pressure to get things going? From my experience, if you just bring something up and create an issue around it - nothing gets done.
“What we need is a long-term strategy and a commitment to really changing things when it comes to sexual harassment and violence against women in general, equal pay - all these issues that are still on the table. We need to have change on paper and laws that implemented and enforced.”
It’s also quite clear that in order to have change on paper, there needs to be a cultural shift and everyone needs to understand the magnitude of the problem.
As great as it is that #MeToo has given a voice to the millions of people around the world who have victims of sexual harassment, with hardly any mention of the perpetrators, it feels at times like a spectacle is being made of what is, in reality, a very serious issue.
“I believe we need to talk about why men are doing this. We need to talk about masculinity and what masculinity norms continue to prevail in our societies. Men need to speak about the issue and question these masculinity norms because, unless we have a change in thinking from men, this will continue to be seen as a women’s issue that women must take care of while men have nothing to do with it. Otherwise we won’t reach our aim of having an equal society in which everyone can live freely.”
Unfortunately, getting men involved is easier said than done; when Parliament debated sexual harassment in its most recent plenary session, only five male MEPs took the floor.
Meanwhile, Reintke has words for those who choose to sit back and watch. “We need to be absolutely clear that bystanding is acceptance and being complacent is going to make things worse. If you want to do something about it, you need to speak up and be vocal in these debates.”
Another crucial challenge is educating men about sexism. “Many men need to realise that the power to define what constitutes a sexist comment does not lie exclusively with them. A lot of them say, ‘It was just meant as a compliment’. We need to very clearly say that even something that is meant as a compliment can be perceived as crossing a line and being inappropriate.
“We need to have a discussion about what is acceptable and what isn’t, because if it’s only up to men to decide what it’s ok to say, that creates a problem, because how would we then define what sexual harassment is? Men need to be part of the discussion, but women very clearly need to have a voice when it comes to defining what constitutes sexual harassment and sexist comments.”
Reintke herself is no stranger to sexism at work. A former parliamentary assistant in Germany’s Bundestag, she became an MEP at the age of 27. She says being a woman in politics has been “very challenging - particularly at the beginning. People expect you to not be capable of doing this job, and they wait for you to make mistakes.
“They also make comments that are in a kind of grey area, people were constantly talking about my age, my looks - not openly sexist but in between a joke and a remark. This was common.
“In order to have more women in politics and in decision making, we need to change this culture and empower them, not make them feel as if they are expected to succeed, but rather create an environment in which they can.”
As Reintke says, sexism in politics is rampant. What was once an open secret came to light a few weeks ago, when numerous women came forward with their tales of sexual harassment - and sometimes rape - in political institutions, including the European Parliament. The House has come under fire for how it handles such incidents.
A special committee - made up of MEPs, parliamentary assistant representatives and administration representatives - handles complaints of harassment, investigates and issues its recommendation to the Parliament President, who makes the final decision. However, many victims are afraid of coming forward for fear of losing their job.
“Obviously we have mechanisms in place, but we have seen that they are not working properly, because despite numerous cases of sexual harassment, none of them were put in front of the anti-harassment committee.
“This doesn’t mean the committee isn’t doing anything - it is dealing with cases of harassment, just not of a sexual nature. There is still a stigma attached to sexual harassment, and victims feel they cannot go in front of the committee and speak about their experiences. This is a structural problem.”
Instead, Reintke advocates an independent body. “MEPs, no matter how hard they try to be impartial - and the people in the committee have done a great job in the past - are still seen as being part of a certain political group, they might have a certain affiliation to some people and so on.
“ What we need is an independent body that provides legal and medical advice, anonymously or on record. Only under these conditions will there be clear impartiality and neutrality, and I believe that’s what many victims would ask for in order to come forward.”
The European Parliament has a very specific power dynamic, with lots of small offices led by a single individual, and with very little oversight over MEPs’ behaviour. This has, most likely, significantly contributed to the culture of silence that surrounds sexual harassment in the institution. This must change, says Reintke.
“Very often assistants speaking out against their boss are scared of losing their job. We need to look very closely at the situation that we have right now, where MEPs have the possibility of firing someone on the basis of a lack or loss of trust.
“There is such a strong power relation and such a stark hierarchy between the two parties involved that we need to ask ourselves if we should change something about this relationship and how we can strengthen the rights of assistants.”
Last month in plenary, MEPs passed a resolution on sexual harassment, which Reintke signed on behalf of the Greens/EFA group. The text calls for independent experts, confidential counselling and mandatory training for MEPs and staff on respect and dignity at work.
“If we can implement all these steps, we will move in the right direction, but at the same time, we have a very long road ahead of us. We are fighting against thousands of years of patriarchy, so we need a long-standing commitment - it’s not enough to just point to the resolution.”
Beyond the resolution however, Reintke says the only way the situation will truly change is if there are more women in political and decision-making bodies.
Last year, the Commission reported that in Europe’s largest companies women made up only 23.3 per cent of board members. This is both infuriating and a sign that business - and governments - need an extra push to ensure women access these positions.
Reintke is calling for the implementation of the women on boards directive, which has been blocked in Council for years - a situation she deems “unbearable.”
So what’s taking our governments so long? “There are still forces that do not want to change the situation, because they are profiting from it. If you want to be all powerful, and you think you can do whatever you want without ever facing the consequences, then you would want the system to stay as it is today.
“We need to stand up against these forces and very clearly say we need to prioritise this. We are claiming to fight for equality and human rights, women’s rights, but we can’t even create a work environment in our own institutions and societies where women can feel safe and equal - it’s completely absurd.”
Along with ensuring the issue of sexual harassment and gender equality remains high on Parliament’s agenda, Reintke recently started a petition (change.org/MeTooEU) to stop sexual harassment in the European Parliament.
“If we don’t keep up the pressure, nothing is going to change and many things won’t be implemented. It’s important to continue to raise our voices and speak up if we are to change the situation.”