TIME magazine’s Person of the Year isn’t about popularity or philanthropy. Instead, the accolade is meant to predict who, when people look back at 2017, they will most remember. In 2016, it was Donald Trump. In 2017, it is The Silence Breakers. Seeing those last two sentences side-by-side reminds me of one of Newton’s laws that I learned in GCSE physics, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
The Silence Breakers isn’t just about the #MeToo movement, although that does form a substantial part of it – it’s about the sense of unrest that has burst onto the world stage in 2017. At the centre of this unrest are the brave men and women who, over the last few months, have spoken out about sexual harassment. Who are responsible for bringing a cascade of previously “untouchable” CEOs and celebrities’ careers crashing down.
But TIME is keen to point out that this movement isn’t just about the famous, it’s also about regular people, working regular jobs whose stories will never make front-page news. “When a movie star says #MeToo, it becomes easier to believe the cook who's been quietly enduring for years.”
The cover features Ashley Judd, one of the first women to speak out against Harvey Weinstein, and Taylor Swift, who won a civil case against the radio DJ, David Mueller, for groping her. Alongside them are Susan Fowler, a former Uber engineer whose allegation brought down Uber's CEO; Adama Iwu, a 40-year-old corporate lobbyist; and Isabel Pascual (not her real name), a 42-year-old strawberry picker from Mexico.
Over six weeks, TIME interviewed dozens of women from a range of industries about their experiences of sexual harassment at work. “In almost every case, they described not only the vulgarity of the harassment itself – years of lewd comments, forced kisses, opportunistic gropes – but also the emotional and psychological fallout from those advances. Almost everybody described wrestling with a palpable sense of shame.”
We are here to make the rest of the world listen to what these women have to say
On top of this shame, many had to wrestle with what would happen to them or their jobs or their families if they dared to speak out in a world where it often comes down to his word against hers – and his word is almost always the final one. There was another fear too, “one less visceral but no less real, as a reason for not speaking out: if you do, your complaint becomes your identity. ‘Susan Fowler, the famous victim of sexual harassment,'" says the woman whose blog post ultimately led Uber CEO Travis Kalanick to resign.
Despite their fears, these women stood up and spoke out. Of course there are cynics out there wondering if this has actually made it harder for women in the workplace, and there are others who are confused about how all this sitting around and talking about our feelings is going to actually affect long-term, systematic change.
But here’s the thing: according to a TIME/SurveyMonkey online poll, 82 per cent of respondents said women are more likely to speak out about harassment since the Weinstein allegations. Compare this to a YouGov and Everyday Sexism Poll last year which revealed that while more than half of women had experienced sexual harassment at work, only 20 per cent felt able to report it to their employer. Change is happening – and it’s happening faster than anyone thought possible. Megyn Kelly, one of the women TIME interviewed, admitted, “I always thought maybe things could change for my daughter. I never thought things could change for me.
But the piece offers up a warning too, that if we want lasting change, we are going to have to affect policy. “We're still at the bomb-throwing point of this revolution, a reactive stage at which nuance can go into hiding. But while anger can start a revolution, in its most raw and feral form it can't negotiate the more delicate dance steps needed for true social change.”
I love this metaphor. I love the imagery of these woman on the front lines of this battle. I imagine them with their jaws set, some of them wearing beautifully crafted armour, others in pencil skirts or nursing scrubs. I imagine them striding towards the structures that have kept them silent for so long, willing to risk their careers, their reputation, and in some cases, their lives, if it means they can burn this whole thing to the ground. I think of all the women who knew that, for this to work, we had to reach into our past and drag out memories we would much rather forget.
And behind them, I imagine my colleagues and all the other people who have sat in newsrooms across the world as story after story broke. We are there to amplify their voices, to give them airtime, to give them headlines. We are there to make the rest of the world listen to what these women have to say.
And behind us are the business managers and the politicians and the CEOs and the HR departments and the judges. The people who will take this anger and put it into policy, who will take these stories and turn them into codes of conduct. The people who will make sure that the next generation of women will never have to endure this bullshit in the workplace.
If 2017 was the year a group of very brave people burnt sexist workplace culture to the ground, 2018 has to be the year that another group of very brave people build something fair and egalitarian in its place.