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'A long way to go': Survey asks if #MeToo is actually driving real change

While the results paint a bleak picture of women’s experiences, there are also glimmers of hope pointing to the potential of social media movements like #MeToo and “Times Up.”

As the world marks International Women's Day, it remains to be seen whether campaigns such as #MeToo and #Timesup can really advance the fight for women's rights and gender equality worldwide.

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As the world marks International Women's Day, it remains to be seen whether campaigns such as #MeToo and #Timesup can really advance the fight for women's rights and gender equality worldwide.

The #MeToo movement has taken over Twitter feeds, dominated newspaper headlines, and unleashed a global reckoning for men who exploit their powerful positions to bully, harass and sexually assault women.

But when it comes to changing toxic gender dynamics — the scaffolding that enables everything from high-profile sexual assaults to more quotidian forms of female oppression — has the needle actually moved? According to one recent survey, the answer is yes, even if only by a quiver.

In the lead up to International Women’s Day — the first since #MeToo went viral — non-profit organization Plan International Canada surveyed 3,000 Canadians for their perspectives on a number of gender equality issues. The charity, popularly known for its “Because I Am a Girl” gender equality campaign, wanted to understand whether the #MeToo movement has altered gender perceptions, according to Canadian president and CEO Caroline Riseboro.

The online survey also included questions about women’s experiences. The results painted a bleak but unsurprising picture: six in 10 women said they’ve endured sexual comments from a male colleague or supervisor. Seven in 10 said they’ve fielded sexual comments from total strangers. And women were twice as likely as men to feel that their gender has discouraged or blocked them from pursuing a job, hobby or academic field.

But there were also hopeful glimmers within the survey results, pointing to the potential of social media movements like #MeToo and “Times Up.”

Sixty-seven per cent of survey respondents believed #MeToo has empowered girls and women and roughly half said it’s had a positive impact on workplaces and schools — a finding that echoes a recent Angus Reid poll, where 65 per cent of Canadians said the movement has impacted the way they relate to co-workers.

Sixty-eight per cent also said #MeToo has caused men to re-evaluate how they interact with women; when isolating just male respondents, 67 per cent agreed with this statement.

“Really, the final frontier (to change) is around the deep-seated social norms that we all hold about the power relationships between men and women,” Riseboro said. “And what we’re seeing is that 67 per cent of men are re-evaluating how they interact with women ... I think that is what we’re seeing as a powerful outcome of the #MeToo movement.”

The “me too” phrase was initially conceived by American civil rights activist Tarana Burke, who first deployed it more than a decade ago to raise awareness of the pervasiveness of sexual assault.

But #MeToo became a viral hashtag last October in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted the phrase and encouraged other sexual assault survivors to follow suit. The tweet spawned more than 12 million posts and reactions within just 24 hours and #MeToo has since come to symbolize the broader movement of victims — mostly women — going public with their stories of sexual harassment, discrimination or assault.

The movement has rippled across the globe, triggering positive changes while also generating backlash from misogynists and feminists alike. There have also been criticisms over the movement’s tendency to exclude or drown out the experiences of racialized or transgender women.

One of the more pervasive questions about #MeToo has been: is it actually driving real change? For Riseboro, she sees promise in the survey result that most men are now rethinking their interactions with women. But she also notes only 33 per cent of men said #MeToo changed the way they think about sexual assault.

“We would have liked to see that number be quite a bit higher,” she said. “So we still have a long way to go.”

University of Toronto associate professor Judith Taylor, who wasn’t involved with the survey, pointed to another concerning statistic nestled within the survey’s broader results. Amongst men aged 55 and over, three quarters said #MeToo has caused a rethink of the way men interact with women — but for boys and men under 25, only 53 per cent agreed.

“(That) is terrifying,” said Taylor, who studies social movements and feminist activism. “That is a real red flag.”

Taylor agrees overall that the #MeToo movement has caused a tectonic shift in the gender equality landscape. Not only are more women more empowered to speak up about their experiences, Taylor is witnessing an increased sophistication in the way people discuss and debate complicated issues.

But when it comes to creating real change, there’s only so much that can be achieved through policy or legal reform, Taylor said. Societal transformation flows from a critical mass of changes at the individual level — perhaps starting with a viral hashtag, which just might prompt someone to start thinking a little bit differently.

“People change their behaviour to realign it with their values. Collectively they do that and then the pernicious behaviour falls away,” she said. “Shifts in consciousness do happen; it’s just more slow than people would like.”

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