Only nine months ago, the American news media reported that a number of women were accusing film producer Harvey Weinstein of sexual misconduct.
What happened next perhaps changed the world. Hundreds of women used the hashtag #Me Too on social media to come forward and say that they had also suffered sexual assault or harassment, in the workplace, in colleges or elsewhere.
The movement spread to many different countries. Some women who spoke out were well-known, though many were not. Some men also revealed their own stories of being sexually assaulted. In some cases, victims named their attackers, and certain individuals were disgraced. Time magazine gave the movement – which it called the “silence breakers” – its Person of the Year Award for 2017.
There were some critics of this wave of accusations. Some people worried that accusers might be lying or exaggerating, or that some of the individuals being accused did not have a chance to defend themselves.
But most of all – as the Time coverage indicated – there was a sense of shock. The numbers of women coming forward publicly made it clear that sexual harassment is far more common than we would want to think.
Many of the highest-profile accusations were in the media and entertainment industry, and in the world of politics. But of course those are the sectors with the famous names.
In businesses in the United States and Europe, bosses and human resources departments saw a big increase in complaints about harassment. The fact is that #MeToo has been a major wake-up call for everyone, including the business community.
Asia has also been affected by all this. In Japan and South Korea, some political and media figures resigned in disgrace after women made allegations against them. In South Korea, the movement was particularly popular.
But there were also backlashes, with conservative voices blaming the women for making trouble. In the mainland, there were allegations of harassment on college campuses – but official media played down the movement.
And in Hong Kong? Several women, including a beauty queen and a gymnast, stood up and told their own stories of being abused. Just recently, there have been several more cases within churches – leading the Hong Kong Christian Council to issue a high-profile public report just a week ago. A survey had found that dozens of women in various congregations had been victims.
Does this mean sexual harassment is otherwise rare in Hong Kong? It might be nice to think so – but think about it. It must take enormous courage to come forward in public and reveal something this traumatic from the past. For every woman who does so, how many others remain silent?
The Women’s Foundation estimates that one in seven women have suffered sexual assault, and 90 percent of them said nothing – out of fear or because they lacked support. The #MeToo movement has made a difference, however: NGOs report a noticeable increase recently in requests for help from victims.
The business community cannot keep its head down on this.
Many corporate CEOs in Hong Kong still probably lack awareness of this issue at a detailed level. It was only after learning about specifics from Equal Opportunities Commission staff that I became sensitive about exactly what lines should not be crossed.
Whether they are big or small, listed or unlisted, all companies should take external advice, if necessary, and take a look at their HR rules. And they should make sure their policies specifically include sexual harassment, with clear definitions of unacceptable behavior and credible procedures for complaints. And, of course, they should publicize these policies among all employees.
This is a matter of ensuring a fair and respectful workplace and dignity for all employees. And – as the example of some US corporations shows – it could also make a huge difference to the company’s reputation and success.
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