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#MeToo - why education is more effective than legislation

Reeves Rachel
Rachel Reeves



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26 November 2019

It is astonishing that, two years on from the inception of the #MeToo movement, the headlines are as prevalent as ever. This past week has seen discussion about one employer using flyers in local pubs and cafes in the vicinity of its office encouraging staff to speak up and report inappropriate conduct. Last month saw universities taking a stand on educating students about consent. Only a few days ago it was reported that harassment in gyms is making women quit using them. Nobody could have predicted the reach, power and influence of #MeToo and the progress it has made in a relatively short time.

Conversely, legislation protecting against harassment has been around for 20 years. It is still effective when utilised but it tends to apply after the horse has already bolted as opposed to acting earlier as a deterrent to harassment.

We all know that any infection or contagion left unchecked or without a vaccine can spread uncontrollably. So too has inappropriate behaviour and harassment been allowed to fester and invade workplaces, universities and even gyms.

I have witnessed first hand over the last couple of years the positive impact of education in this area. Having implemented global training programmes covering respect and dignity at work for a variety of international employers, I have been challenged, encouraged, surprised and intrigued by the reactions of those I have trained. The subject matter is emotive, with no checklist or answer to every problem, but rather shades of grey. It’s nuanced, subjective and generates a response. This is where the education piece is born: out of the discussion, the many different perspectives, the context and by putting yourself in the other person’s shoes.

As both a parent and employment lawyer, it will come as no surprise that the most critical and welcome area of progress for me lies in the recent stance being taken by universities in response to #MeToo. I personally feel strongly that any negative human behaviour needs to be tackled as early as possible in a child’s or young adult’s development. Why? It will effectively become the vaccine against that behaviour. Putting it simply, a failure to tackle the issue before a person reaches working age means that the negative behaviour is allowed to continue in a working environment later in life, bringing its own issues, which employment lawyers and HR professionals deal with on a regular basis and have done for years now. I recognise that this increased education and consequent awareness may result in fewer issues for me to advise on in the future, but I’m confident it won’t make me altogether redundant!

Ultimately, what’s more important? Don’t we owe it to our young professionals of the future to have the chance to learn from others’ mistakes? To help them understand the boundaries, appreciate the importance of mutual respect and knowing instinctively the difference between appropriate and inappropriate verbal and physical behaviours. Surely it is our responsibility to equip them to avoid the serious errors of judgment made and still being made by the generations which preceded them.

Education has a more immediate and pre-emptive impact than legislation. So well done to the reported two-thirds of universities who have initiated this step and let’s hope all higher education establishments jump on the bandwagon soon.

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