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Has #MeToo Killed The Office Romance?


SATURDAY 13 OCTOBER, 16:00—17:15, FROBISHER AUDITORIUM 1IDENTITY WARS: FEMINISM AFTER #METOO


Deborah Annetts - chief executive, Incorporated Society of Musicians; employment lawyer, specialising in sexual harassment and discrimination law; leader, ISM’s Dignity at Work campaign


Jim Butcher - reader in geography, Canterbury Christ Church University; co-author, Volunteer Tourism: the lifestyle politics of international development


Becky Holloway - programme director, Jericho Chambers


Shelagh McNerney - senior manager, built environment and construction sector


Ella Whelan (Chair) journalist and frequent commentator on TV and radio; author, What Women Want



The office romance debate had male and female audience members engaged. Thanks to Henry Kenyon henrykenyonphotography.com.


This was another debate about the ways in which the lives of men and women have changed following the MeToo movement. The MeToo movement featured a Twitter hash tag in which individuals publically reported their experiences of sexual violence and sexual harassment. The office romance is a significant topic in gender identity because some twenty per cent of people meet their future partner at work. In the context of the workplace, comments which might be seen as harassment or inappropriate could discourage two colleagues from pursing a consensual relationship. In short, someone has to say something to make the first move. In creating a climate of suspicion the MeToo movement might impede future partners from meeting at work. Soon, meeting a life partner could become a thing of the past (leaving Tinder to become the thing of the future). Current sixth formers, planning to study at university, will graduate for work within five years: this issue is a pressing one for them to think about.


Deborah Annetts felt that company policies towards staff, including sexual harassment, were important in establishing a common code of behaviour to protect men and women in the workplace. Too often, she felt, these policies were not used for the greater good. Sheila McNerney meanwhile felt that sexual harassment, as a term, had expanded its definition to the point of redundancy (the term ‘concept creep’ is sometimes used here). A career, typically a man’s career, could so easily be ruined by a complaint following a ‘pass’ or expression of attraction that becomes interpreted as harassment.


Becky Holloway offered the sentiment that Harvey Weinstein (and men of his ilk) are the problem, but ‘flirty’ behaviour is welcome. Emotional intelligence is key, she thought, so that individuals interpret workplace interactions with a sense of perspective. Weinstein, of course, is the subject of an ongoing case; regarding what he has been accused of, it is certainly true that most men do not have the power to even behave in that way.


Jim Butcher was able to clarify the Weinstein conundrum: the problem with harassment is that it is defined on a spectrum. Behaviour that is simply discretely different to other behaviour is too often placed on a continuum as though each case is part of the same problem. The drunken pass at an office party is ranked on the same harassment scale as serious sexual violence and abuses of power. Suddenly, the individual who has been stared at by a colleague is as much a victim as someone who has been raped.


Several audience members felt that the MeToo movement was empowering for women and one sixteen year old described her unpleasant treatment at the hands of male colleagues at a part time place of work. What was very interesting is that, amongst many younger audience members, gender had become a ‘them and us’ issue, although several young women had no problem with a male colleague telling them that their hair looked nice (or similar). An ‘edgy’ joke is context dependant, said one young woman: you appreciate it if you happen to fancy the man telling it.


I am probably not the person to be commenting too much on the issue of the office romance; the last time someone paid me a compliment at work there was no social media. It is perhaps difficult for young people to appreciate the relative novelty of men and women even occupying the same workplace settings. Only in perhaps the last forty years have men and women commonly shared similar occupations, professions and work environments. Naturally there will be attractions and naturally there will be unrequited interest. How this is negotiated without causing fear between genders is a challenge for the next generation of employees: so far this negotiation seems to be in regression.



Discussion questions


• What is the MeToo campaign and why did it start?

• In terms of compliments, comments or flirting in the workplace, where should the line be drawn?

• Has social media improved the rights and opportunities for men and women or hindered them?

• Should women be offered special protections in the workplace, for instance, female only staffrooms?

• If you had to write an anti-harassment or relationship policy for male and female colleagues at work, what would it say?

• What is flirting and is it acceptable between colleagues in a place of work?

• Concept creep is when a definition for a word broadens to the point where it encompasses more and more examples. Why is this considered a problem in the discussion of workplace relationships and workplace harassment?




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