Apps won't 'move the #MeToo movement', especially without systematic change

A BBC article examined the impact of Gretchen Carlson’s lawsuit against Fox News’s chairman Roger Ailes and the potential for apps to make it easier to report sexual harassment in the workplace:

Gretchen Carlson is as composed as you would expect a former news anchor to be, remembering the day just over five years ago when she became the news.

“I had been at Fox [News] 11 years. It was my dream job. I do not think any woman or man ever expects to find a toxic workplace situation. But that is what ended up happening to me”.

Mrs Carlson shocked the world when she filed a lawsuit against Fox News chairman, Roger Ailes, on July 16, 2016, alleging she had been fired for refusing his sexual advances.

According to Mrs Carlson’s complaint, Mr Ailes had told her: “I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago. You’d be good and better, and I’d be good and better”.

Mr Ailes denied this exchange ever happened. But when more than a dozen other women came forward with similar complaints, he was forced to leave the network, and Mrs Carlson was awarded what was reported to be $20m (£14.65m) in compensation.

Could technology help to provide an answer here?

Two companies have created mobile phone apps aimed at supporting employees who wish to report workplace misconduct.

Vault is one of these, an app that allows workers to report unwanted advances in real time. A setting also crucially reveals to users whether there are others suffering at the hands of a specific colleague.

“Reporters don’t see how many other complaints there are, but they do have the power to say, I will only report this if there are others suffering similar things,” says Vault’s founder Neta Meidav, whose own experiences of harassment in her 20s inspired her to create the technology.

“I definitely would have reported if I had known I was not the only one. It would have changed everything for me,” she says. “It is not just the solidarity it provides. It is also the credibility that comes with it, knowing I will be believed.”

If people wish to remain anonymous, victims can still submit documentary or other evidence to company management via the app.

“What we are aiming to do is to see that things are resolved before they become the next lawsuit.”

Ms Meidav says that dozens of companies have taken up the technology, which targets all types of corporate misconduct, and the response has been positive, reinforcing workers’ trust and pride in their employers.

“I can reassure companies that this has not caused an avalanche of complaints. No one has been overthrown from their chair. Usually it has helped sift through minor problems and complaints and stopped them getting out of hand.”

I can’t speak for every single organisation and how their HR departments work but from the stories I’ve heard from Black colleagues, there’s a common ignorance to claims of discrimination. Without systematic change (and by that, I mean dismantling rather than reform), apps add another layer to fundamentally broken processes and are the second scapegoats—behind the victims of course—when they don’t achieve the desired effect. But how could they? The biases remain and the apps have no way of fixing those.

That’s not to say apps like Vault are useless. They have a purpose and have helped victims speak up, collectively and anonymously, and that is a positive. But to suggest they can progress a social movement on a significant and/or fundamental level is naïve at best and harmful at worst.

Also, the point about this technology not causing “an avalanche of complaints” or “overthrowing people from their chairs” is a concern. If someone requires an app to anonymously report harassment, is that not severe enough to warrant dismissal as a potential outcome? Why would an organisation need an app for “minor problems and complaints”. That’s what HR and related departments are for!

We can’t app our way out of sexism, sexual harassment, racism, and all the intersections of discrimination in the workplace. Apps won’t ‘move the #MeToo movement’—dismantling the oppressive foundations of our systems and routines will.

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