These are the water cooler conversations happening in British offices post-Weinstein.
Illustration: Owain Anderson
Within a day of the sexual assault and harassment allegations against Harvey Weinstein reaching Twitter, it was clear the effects would be felt much further than Hollywood. Quickly, British women – and some men – began posting their own stories of abuse and treatment by men under the tag #MeToo. Partially due to the fact that even the girl from your sixth form was sharing one, and partially because many of the men accused were in positions of relative power, other industries were forced to see that it was not just "a Hollywood problem".
The most high profile of these industries so far has been politics, where accusations of sexual misconduct by male MPs are being uncovered, and the way in which allegations of harassment at Westminster have been dealt with found lacking. But the same thing is happening in other fields. In the media, for example, Rupert Myers, GQ political correspondent, was called out on Twitter for allegedly making unwanted advances towards a female journalist and subsequently let go from the magazine (following the allegation, Myers tweeted, "If you feel I have said or done anything towards you that was sub-optimal in the past, you have my sincere and unreserved apologies). In music, ex-Crystal Castles singer Alice Glass alleged that her former bandmate, Ethan Kath, subjected her to years of sexual and emotional abuse (Kath said he was "outraged and hurt" by Glass's statement and denied all the allegations, and is now suing her).
Most people working within the media, music and entertainment industries will have heard about at least a couple of people accused of sexual harassment, assault or rape over the past month. Maybe some of them were friends or colleagues. Rumours abound of people losing their jobs over accusations, but as many Twitter accounts of the accused have gone silent, there has been little more than hearsay or rumours about the action taken by their employers.
I contacted a number of UK-based media and music companies that had employees who had recently been accused of sexual misconduct, asking them for an interview for this story. None of them replied. Perhaps that's not surprising: workplaces implicated want to keep their heads down for PR purposes, waiting for allegations to blow over or any criminal proceedings to commence. Silence and erring on the side of caution are perhaps sensible band-aids for these companies, but they're also hardly laudable messages of intent regarding their support of women. Many employees won't have felt comfortable – or been allowed – to speak out about situations linked to their employers. And yet, fuelled by the serious nature of accusations, the lack of transparency and the heated debates happening in HR rooms, this is all anyone's been having guarded conversations about over the past few weeks, and it shows little sign of slowing.
So, what is actually happening in offices across these industries in the UK?
James* told me that after the large media organisation he works for was made aware of a series of harassment and rape accusations against a member of staff, the accused was let go. He found the mood to be an encouraging one.
"[It was] a kind of stunned moment that we'd been working with a person like that, but refreshing that everyone immediately sided with the women who levelled the accusations," he told VICE. "There were no devil's advocates – we were all just thankful that someone like that had been dealt with so swiftly. Male and female members of staff were together in the fact that we're a company that has a lot of women, so obviously there's a direct safety concern, but more broadly, none of us wanted to work with someone like that."
At a national magazine title, Alysha* – who shared her own #MeToo story – found the office environment comforting. "I was inundated with male friends and colleagues telling me how proud they were of me for speaking up. The only person I've seen trying to defend men against women who make 'false' accusations is someone who has been accused themselves," she says. "I've not heard one man in my office worry about women making false allegations. Either that means they're secretly freaking out on the inside, or I'm lucky to not be working in a nest of sex pests. But generally, the men around me have been nothing but supportive."
This experience is not shared by all. A woman at a leading digital publication told me she's been disappointed by the response from men in her office. "On the whole, they've just been ignoring it or staying quiet. Some of them have been agreeing – when we women bring the topic up – that it's all awful, when they're frequently sexist in their own ways, which is just as angering." She added that a few men were "badmouthing" someone they all knew who'd come out with a #MeToo, "saying it wasn't that bad and that she was detracting from people's 'real' rape stories". "Because they were all senior, I didn't feel comfortable challenging them on it," she said.
Similarly, in other offices, little has changed. One woman who works at a large media agency told VICE, "I used #MeToo as a joke last week when a client continued to hold my hand and hug me at an event in front of my MD. A lot of men in senior management have been making Weinstein 'jokes' also. My office is 70 percent male, and I'd say none of them understand what sexual harassment is, and think that it only includes rape. I think, because in their minds sexual assault is only rape, they don't realise their actions are wrong."
One man, who works in TV, highlighted a notable difference in the response behind closed doors between the younger and older men. "The majority of people above 30 are more lenient towards Weinstein and his actions because they feel there's no hard evidence to prove what he's done, which obviously ends with some heavy discussions with the youth," he told VICE, adding that "the worst thing about this case is that the people at my work are more upset and annoyed with Kevin Spacey coming out as gay and House Of Cards being axed than they are him being accused of sexual harassment with minors and the whole Weinstein case in general."
In the British music industry, where abusive behaviour has been rife for years – in 2015, Broadly ran a story about sexual predators in the music industry and hardly a month passes without an allegation against a man from a working musician or fan – you'd have thought the story might have started to change. But predictably, for some women in the industry the mood isn't markedly different.
One woman at a leading gig promotion company with a mostly male staff told VICE that her office's approach has been one of mockery. "Almost instantly it became a joke among the men in the office, calling each other Weinstein, and among the women in the office it's just not been discussed. One girl who put [her] #MeToo on her Facebook was taken the piss out of the next day. By making a joke of it they're trying to trivialise it, because there are new stories of sexual harassment across the UK music industry all the time. It's easier for them to turn it into a joke rather than face up to the issue. It makes it quite hard to be a feminist woman working in the industry, as you partly feel like you're condoning it even by just working there."
At a music PR company, a woman said that instead of making it into a joke, men were staying quiet on the issue, a choice that felt political in its pointedness. "Nothing has happened [to address this]. It's been mentioned probably once or twice in the last month, and when it was it was because stories of men in the music industry had started to come out," she said. "Only one of the guys brought it up – the youngest of the office except me – and then it was quickly brushed under the carpet by the other guy he was speaking to. He said he feels uncomfortable when women bring up their sexual assault as he doesn't know how to react appropriately. [It's] infuriating."
Within the media, it feels easiest to be tentatively optimistic about the climate. Broadsheets and older journalists are declaring how uncomfortable they are with this "witch hunt" (try the Telegraph columnist Charles Moore's hilarious plea: "I pray that women now share power with men, not crush us"), but without the public support of the majority. Female journalists have set up a resource, The Second Source, to tackle harassment from within.
"It feels like everyone's sort of rallying together to eradicate this gross behaviour," says Alysha. "I've had tons of women, and a few guys, come to me with their own stories of abuse in the industry, which they're sadly not ready to go public about, but at least they're telling someone and getting some support. I know I would call it out immediately if I ever saw it happening to someone else, and I hope others would do the same."
James agreed. "If this hadn't been something that had implicated so many high profile names, I think it would've been forgotten about, but I think the sentiment is definitely 'this is a good thing' rather than 'we should be scared'."
When it comes to the workplace, the reactions from staff members to allegations of harassment or assault are important and speak volumes. A male boss laughing off the reported behaviour of a employee can make you feel unsafe and unsupported. As such, many companies are noticing rifts between younger and older staff, men and women, those protecting the bad behaviour and those being affected by that behaviour – and it's not easy to see how they'll heal.
Most concerning for many people I spoke to is that these debates are happening in quiet water-cooler conversations, kept away from Twitter, where often the same men defending their mates in private are denouncing them in public. Until these conversations happen out in the open, it will never be clear whether attitudes are really changing, or if people are just getting better at covering their tracks.
*Full names have not been used to protect interviewees' anonymity