#MeToo one year later: Cosby, Moonves fall, sex harassment fight at work far from over

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What has changed at work in the year since sexual harassment allegations against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein turned the words “me” and “too” into an unforgettable hashtag and rallying cry for a generation?

A few examples: McDonald’s workers walked off the job in a demonstration aimed at fighting harassment in their restaurants. Powerful men, from celebrity chef Mario Batali to CBS CEO Les Moonves continue to be purged from positions for alleged predatory behavior. Laws have been passed in places like California and New York state aimed at training and awareness. Corporations have altered policies, including Microsoft’s move to allow employees who previously had contracts with arbitration clauses to seek remedies in open court. 

But there has also been a backlash: complaints that the movement has gone astray, putting men at risk of punishments that go too far; concern among human resources and other experts that women may have a harder time landing certain positions as some powerful men claim they are afraid to hold one-on-one meetings with female colleagues; women of color and those who earn low wages who have complained that the movement hasn’t adequately addressed their concerns. 

And as the first wave of cases filed in the #MeToo era have their day in court, it remains to be seen if the many fighting such mistreatment far from the spotlight will ultimately get justice.

“I’m not seeing any easier path for women to get to legal remedies as a result of the #MeToo movement,” says Laura Noble, an attorney who works with the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund  and whose North Carolina-based firm had a 500 percent increase in calls about sexual harassment in the last three months of 2017.

“Some jury consultants will tell you that it’s negatively affecting harassment claimants because of this perception that the #MeToo movement’s gone too far,” Noble said. “So I think the next six,12,18 months, when these verdicts come back … we’ll have a better sense of where the public really is, on whether there has been a social shift and mindset in how we deal with sexual harassment victims.’’

Headline-grabbing moments

It has been a year since dozens of allegations against Weinstein exposed the prevalence of sexual harassment in the workplace and sparked a wrenching conversation about abuse and assault in the nation’s offices, factories and fields.

 

Since then, the headline-grabbing moments have included the firings of media and Hollywood heavyweights like Charlie Rose, Matt Lauer and Kevin Spacey. In September, CBS CEO Moonves resigned in the wake of several accusations of sexual misconduct and legendary comedian Bill Cosby was sent to state prison after being convicted of three counts of aggravated indecent assault.

One of the most fraught flash points of the #MeToo period occurred last week, when Christine Blasey Ford told the Senate  Judiciary Committee that she had been sexually assaulted by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh when they were teenagers. 

“We certainly have moved into a new era,” says Tarana Burke, who created #MeToo more than a decade before it burst into the national consciousness and is considered the founder of the #MeToo movement.

“A moment doesn’t last for a year, and it doesn’t influence policy and pop culture,” Burke continued. “We will never not know about the depths of sexual violence, and we’ll never not have language to talk about our experience with sexual violence, because of #MeToo.”

#MeToo has reverberated in other ways. In January, Hollywood luminaries launched Time’s Up, an organization whose Legal Defense Fund has raised more than $22 million to assist men and women who’ve been sexually harassed or violated on the job. As of last week, it had received 3,557 requests for assistance.

The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission said Thursday that preliminary data showed sexual harassment complaints filed with it this fiscal year rose by more than 12 percent as compared to that same period in 2017.  Additionally, sexual harassment claims were part of 41 lawsuits brought by the EEOC during this fiscal year, a more than 50 percent uptick in legal actions addressing that type of abuse as compared to the previous fiscal year.

And lawmakers from New York to California have green lit legislation that includes measures to make anti-harassment training mandatory and bars employers from compelling staffers to sign waivers that block them from pursuing their harassers. Although a USA TODAY examination found that since #MeToo began, elected officials passed 261 laws that directly addressed topics championed by the movement, just a slight uptick from 238 in the year prior. 

But there has also been an adverse reaction, with critics contending that the movement has painted a spectrum of behavior, from a lewd joke to outright assault, with the same punitive brush. A Pew Research Center poll conducted in February and March revealed that 51 percent of Americans believe the increased focus on sexual harassment and assault has made it more difficult for men to know how to interact with women at work.

Others say that women of color and low-wage workers who are most susceptible to sexual harassment have been relegated to the sidelines, their stories largely ignored by media fixated on victims and perpetrators who are affluent, famous and white. 

 

As of Sept. 11, 28 percent of women and 9 percent of men said they have been sexually harassed at work, according to a study exclusively shared with USA TODAY by Comparably.com, a workplace culture and compensation monitoring site. 

In the wake of #MeToo, high-profile companies have lost leaders. In December, celebrated chef and TV star Mario Batali stepped down from his company and TV show after multiple women accused him of groping and harassing them. 

Sneaker giant Nike also has experienced changes among its executives. Nike brand president, Trevor Edwards, and Nike’s vice president and general manager of global categories, Jayme Martin, resigned in March due to what company chairman and CEO Mark Parker said were “behavioral issues that are inconsistent with Nike’s values.” News reports at the time said that Edwards and Martin had protected male employees accused of belittling women and foreign-born staffers.  

As a growing number of businesses begin to examine their policies, some major companies and industries have drawn attention to their attempts to prevent sexual abuses and make it easier to fight back when they occur.

In December, Microsoft said it was getting rid of the arbitration clause in sexual harassment and gender discrimination cases for the fewer than 1 percent of its 125,000 employees who had such provisions in their employment agreements. That same month, Facebook made its anti-sexual-harassment policy public. 

And while the hotel industry had begun to take steps to combat harassment before  the rise of #MeToo, in September, the American Hotel Lodging Association and several major companies including Hilton, Marriott and Hyatt announced a pledge to ensure hotel workers throughout the U.S. have safety devices nearby to ward off sexual assault and other crimes by 2020.   

”Every industry should be looking at themselves and asking, ‘What more can we do?’ ” says Katherine Lugar, AHLA’s president and CEO, noting that cultural expectations have changed, as has technology. 

Businesses are in some ways moving at a faster clip than lawmakers, says Joan Fife, a labor and employment litigator and partner with the firm Winston Strawn. 

“I’m sure that many people would have expected there to be more prompt legislation passed and signed into law on both the state and the federal level,” says Fife. “I think that companies have responded much more quickly. … Going forward voluntarily, without waiting for the law to change, that’s how best practices are created.”

However, there has been a push on the legislative front as well. New York state approved legislation in March that requires all state contractors as of Jan. 1  to submit a declaration that they have a sexual harassment policy that adheres to at least minimum criteria and that they have trained all their staff members. All public and private employers must also have such a policy in place and give a copy of it along with yearly training to every worker as of Oct. 9.

California has passed a handful of bills inspired or spurred by the #MeToo movement. They include legislation that says before an employer in the entertainment industry can receive a permit to hire a minor, underage performers between the ages of 14 and 17, and their parent, must undergo training in how to prevent sexual harassment and be told of where they can go to report such an offense. Another new law will require lobbyists to get training on the state’s anti-harassment policies.

But much more needs to be done, advocates and survivors say. And some have voiced specific concerns that the movement has failed to adequately address the more layered challenges faced by working-class women, women of color and black women in particular. 

“Most people who experience sexual harassment at work are not being harassed by somebody famous,” says Emily Martin, vice president for education and workplace justice at the National Women’s Law Center. “I would say that the primary concern for all of us is what is the response available to those women and men who are experiencing harassment by someone who isn’t  famous?… What resources and assistance are we providing to those individuals or those cases?”

Broader change needed

Many advocates believe that rooting out harassment means also addressing broader issues of gender inequity in the workplace.

On Sunday, California’s Gov. Jerry Brown signed a landmark bill that will require all publicly traded businesses with headquarters in the state to have at least one woman director on their boards by the end of next year. They will need to have at least two by the end of 2021. 

But while a few other states have approved nonbinding resolutions with a similar goal of reaching gender diversity, California is the only state to address the issue with a specific law. And women in the workplace continue to lag behind from pay to promotions. 

Women overall earn on average roughly 80 cents for every dollar brought home by a man, with black and Latina women even further behind. And there were 24 female CEOs among the Fortune 500 as of 2018, according to Fortune magazine, down from 32 last year, and the same number as in 2014. 

Yet few Americans are confident that one battle will benefit the other. 

Pew Research found that 28 percent of Americans believed more attention on sexual harassment and assault would eventually increase professional opportunities for women, while 51 percent said it wouldn’t do much either way and 20 percent said it would actually hurt their chances.

And Burke says that with so much work to be done to address sexual violence, from workplace harassment to child abuse, advocates must be careful not to push too many issues under the #MeToo umbrella.

“There’s definitely a line that can be drawn but i also think that we have for the first time in our history . . .. the opportunity to have a continuous conversation around sexual violence,  “she says. “We cannot dilute that conversation … because this is also not a woman’s movement. MeToo is about sexual violence and surviving sexual violence whether (survivors) identify as women, or men, or transgender or don’t identify with a gender at all.”

The fact that men can be victimized as well was brought into focus when Asia Argento, a vocal MeToo activist was accused of committing statutory rape against former child actor Jimmy Bennett, when he was 17 and she was 37 in 2013. (Argento has given conflicting responses, previously denying that she’d had sex with Bennett, reportedly saying in private texts that she had, and most recently saying through her attorney that Bennett attacked her.)

In regard to whether such an allegation against such a prominent MeToo activist hurts the movement, Martin of the National Women’s Law Center  says that “it is good that all different sorts of survivors are feeling empowered to share their experience and … while it can be difficult, it is for the best for the movement to recognize complexity; that there aren’t perfect survivors, that being a perfect victim shouldn’t be a prerequisite for getting some sort of justice and people who are victimized can victimize others.”

The vigorous debate currently raging across the country about Kavanaugh’s pending Supreme Court nomination has also fed concerns that there is often an unfair rush to judgement of those accused of sexual abuses.

According to Pew, though 50 percent of Americans believe men going unpunished for harassing and sexually aggressive behavior on the job is a significant problem – and 46 percent think women who make such accusations not being believed is a major issue – 34 percent think the accused being fired prematurely is a significant concern. Slightly more than 3 in 10 also see false accusations as being very problematic.

President Donald Trump, addressing questions from reporters Tuesday about the Kavanaugh nomination, said, “it’s a very scary time for young men in America.”

But advocates say that for too long, the accused have gotten a much greater benefit of the doubt than their alleged victims. 

“We are a country of laws, and I think we will always give people their day in court,” says Nina Shaw, an attorney and Time’s Up founding member. “But we’re coming from a system where for centuries the voices of the victimized and abused were never heard. … It’s so ironic when I hear people say we are we moving too fast.”

The next chapter 

As the movement enters its next chapter, activists say more attention needs to be paid to expanding reforms and implementing creative solutions. 

For instance, independent contractors, unpaid volunteers and smaller businesses “may fall outside the protection of sexual harassment law,” Martin says. “That needs to change.” 

Some legislatures have also proposed requiring public companies to report to shareholders the number of sexual harassment settlements they’ve made in the previous 12 months and how much they paid. By providing benchmarks and insights into whether there’s a pattern or sudden surge in complaints, Martin says, “it helps peel back the layer of secrecy that can allow harassment to flourish year after year.”  

And more resources must be devoted to helping survivors, from psychological counseling to legal assistance.  

Those encouraged to share their #MeToo experiences, Burke says, are “going to crisis hotlines, into churches, and those programs need resources.”

But however many roadblocks remain, advocates say, transformation remains possible.  “I pray for a time when I’m telling these stories to my granddaughter and she’s rolling her eyes … because I’m talking about something that is so absolutely foreign to her that she can’t imagine it,” Shaw says. “That time only comes if we continue to put our shoulder in the struggle.”

 

Contributing: Jorge Ortiz

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