The #MeToo movement in the UK and Australia

On 16 July, the Intellectual Forum, the Australian National University, and the Centre for Social Impact at the University of New South Wales cohosted a ‘#MeToo: 2021 in focus’ panel for students, practitioners, journalists and the general public. 

Here is a summary of the event from Intellectual Forum Intern Eliza Bond:

Yasmin Poole – award winning speaker and youth advocate – kicked off the discussion by explaining that this is an issue which disproportionately, though not exclusively, affects young women. She used the mishandling of the Christian Porter scandal in Australia to illustrate the impact of sexual violence on democracy. However, using the March 2021 rally in Melbourne as an example, Yasmin suggested there has been a paradigm shift in Australia, with greater weight being afforded to the voice of young girls when they speak of their experience of assault and harassment.

Dr Jenna Price – writer and columnist with over 40-years of experience in writing about these issues – was somewhat more pessimistic. She spoke about the chilling effect of defamation laws in Australia, which give substantial protection to abusers and harassers. She also used the rise of non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), and the unwillingness of companies to see these as a problem, as symptomatic of the legal pressure placed on victims and survivors of such abuse and harassment. She suggested we are losing sight of the public policy problem.

Dr Sarah Steele – researcher at the University of Cambridge – then focused on the situation in the UK. Drawing on her active bystander training work, she suggested we need both bottom-up and top-down strategies to systematically change the culture of harassment and abuse. She also stressed that whilst this is an issue which overwhelmingly affects women, both men and non-binary individuals are in no way immune. She concluded by suggesting that slut-shaming, misogyny and doxxing must end in order to create an environment where survivors feel it is safe for them to speak out.

Kieran Pender – Australian writer, lawyer and academic – concluded the discussion. Drawing on his work at the International Bar Association, he suggested that although we have known that certain types of conduct are occurring, and that such conduct is unacceptable for a significant period of time, very little has changed in the work place for lawyers. He also drew attention to the Dyson Heydon harassment scandal in Australia to show that this form of abuse continues to occur even in the upper echelons of the judiciary.  

As a young woman living in the UK on the cusp of adulthood, what struck me from all members of the panel was that whilst we are on the precipice of change and progress, a significant amount of work needs to be done both upstream and downstream to ensure this momentum does not fall flat. Bold policy statements and rhetoric needs to be matched with those in power actually engaging with victims and survivors to ensure the justice system, the workplace and society as a whole works for them. 

The discussion sought to take stock of the events of 2021 in Australia and the UK. It quickly became clear that this event would mark the start of a continuing dialogue between the institutions in the UK and Australia about where the #MeToo movement goes from here.

I would like to extend my personal thanks to Dr Dilan Thampapillai for chairing the panel and acting as moderator for this event.”