At my company’s conference in Britain last week, the boss asked a new partner to introduce himself. He stood up and said, “I’m Bill Perkins and I’ll be handling the real estate practice in the Midlands. I’m ably assisted by Charlotte Gregory – stand up Charlotte – who works hand in hand with me – not literally, of course! The way we work together is like this: I go out, hunt out new work, kill it, and bring it back. Charlotte cuts it up and cooks it.” Three sexist remarks in 60 seconds.
A day later, at a meeting with Chinese investors in Hong Kong, a colleague and I talked about an opportunity to set up a joint school in China with one of Britain’s top girls’ schools. “It wouldn’t work,” said the chairman of the fund. “China’s women are already strong enough. It’s not like Britain where women need lifting up. In China, single-sex schools are pre-Liberation throwbacks.” I pointed out most studies show girls do better academically in single-sex environments. Now it was the vice-chairman’s turn to chip in: “If girls do better at school than boys, that’s to their detriment. The more highly qualified a woman is, the more difficult it is for her to get married.”
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In the West, the #metoo “movement”, which was started to share stories of sexual harassment, has elevated female victimhood into a virtue and given mob-charged credence to the claims of any woman who says she has been a victim. This, it is argued, will help rebalance a system that has, for generations, granted privilege to men. The rule of law, the presumption of innocence, and the fact women are just as likely to lie as men are all dismissed as trivial complaints in the cause of female empowerment.
A more persuasive doctrine than this sort of equality feminism is that of liberation feminism, championed for decades by one of the most interesting writers on female emancipation, Germaine Greer. She says the #metoo movement trivialises rape by allowing any woman propositioned by someone she does not find attractive to cast herself as a victim, and allowing women who regret a consensual encounter to re-badge it as rape.
Going back to those real-life examples above: the old-fashioned lawyer introducing his female sidekick was verbally flattened when Angela Hoult, our head of employment law, gave a speech on punishing workplace harassment, adding at the end: “And so, Charlotte, if Bill does try to hold your hand, those are the punishments that would apply.” That is the way to deal with Bill’s sexism. There was no need to send him for training or have him demoted or humiliated. A witty put-down from a powerful woman that showed he had overstepped the mark was enough. Yet many now believe that nothing short of sacking and shaming is sufficient.
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And what are we to make of those Chinese businessmen who thought women should avoid being too highly educated so they can find husbands? Well – they have a point. Chinese women do tend to “marry up”. It’s not just men turning up their noses at clever women; it’s women refusing to date men who are not at least their intellectual peers or richer than they are. Of course, women should be given the chance to excel, but we must acknowledge the framework for the businessmen’s views.
Where does all this leave us? Exactly where we were before #metoo surfaced. Reliance on law is still the safest method of protecting women’s rights. Rape and sexual offences should be subject to the same legal process as always. In practice, this means proving in court and beyond reasonable doubt that the offence occurred. Saying “me too” and then hoping that the accused is fired is a method of attack that bypasses natural justice. It is not enough for the perceived victim to argue “What about my natural justice? Who protected my rights when I was subjected to sexual assault?”
No-one should be declared guilty without due process. We should not, however, declare the movement to have been a waste of time. It has, at least, made men more cautious in the workplace and therefore less likely to abuse women. That can only be a good thing, unless of course you are a predatory male with younger female subordinates.
Nicolas Groffman is a partner at law firm Harrison Clark Rickerbys