A global moment for the #MeToo movement

World leaders have a chance to enact a pact against sexual harassment in the workplace. Even debating the issue reveals a revolution in thought about respect and equality for all.

AP
Thousands of women in Lausanne, Switzerland demand an end to sexual harassment along with equal pay during a nationwide women's strike June 14.

The #MeToo movement may finally have found its global moment.

On Thursday, world leaders at the International Labor Organization in Geneva will vote on a proposed agreement aimed at ending sexual harassment in the workplace. Enforcement of such agreements can be notoriously weak. And it is not clear whether the final pact will be legally binding or hold companies responsible for harassment by an employee. Still, the fact that a United Nations agency feels compelled to address gender-based harassment reflects a revolution in attitudes.

One in three countries still has no laws protecting women or men from workplace harassment. Even in the United States, both laws and company practices remain a work in progress more than three decades after the Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment is a violation of the Civil Rights Act.

Part of the global struggle lies in the problem of depicting women as potential victims in the workplace yet also empowering them to flourish. Punitive laws are not enough. Even company policies and training seminars are seen as inadequate. Company culture must reflect the values of respect and equality, starting from the top. The fastest route to such a values shift lies in hiring more women and promoting them to leadership positions.

In fact, the “feminization” of society, or the rise of influence for women, is one reason for a centurieslong decline in violence of all kinds, according to Harvard scholar Steven Pinker. The pacifism often associated with women helps reduce a tendency to settle scores or achieve an ambition by force.

In his latest book, “Enlightenment Now,” Mr. Pinker points to qualities of character that have helped drive progress at the global level. Human nature, he writes, “contains the seeds of its own improvement, as long as it comes up with norms and institutions that channel parochial interests into universal benefits.”

This week, the ILO may make history by setting a new global norm on sexual harassment. New or tougher laws will help. But it is the shift in thought that counts, especially if it lifts everyone in the workplace.

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