In 2017, #MeToo catapulted into the mainstream as women in industries across the board boldly spoke out about instances of sexual harassment and assault by men in power. But while the movement helped uncover the deeply entrenched misogyny in workplaces across the country, the long-term effects of #MeToo have largely been unclear. Now, a new study from the National Women’s Law Center begins to show the movement’s tangible impact.
Last week, the NWLC published a report surveying recent policy changes related to workplace harassment across the country. Titled “Progress in Advancing Me Too Workplace Reforms In #20By2020,” the study found that fifteen states–––including Oregon, New Jersey, Illinois, and New York––have passed new laws protecting employees from sexual harassment and gendered discrimination at work since the #MeToo movement made waves in 2017. With the slogan “20 by 2020,” the NWLC is urging more states pass similar legislation in the next year.
“When MeToo took off in the fall of 2017, we were inundated with requests from various groups who wanted to find a way to channel the energy of the moment into meaningful change,” says Andrea Johnson, Director of State Policy at the NWLC and co-author of the report. “We provided technical assistance to state advocates and legislators to find major gaps in the laws, and we also took stock of what work has been done and what changes need to be made moving forward.”
Although it was popularized in 2017 in the wake of accusations against Harvey Weinstein, the #MeToo narrative existed for more than a decade prior. In 2006, activist Tarana Burke coined the phrase “Me Too” as a rallying cry for the young women of color who she worked with in New York City, many of whom had previously faced sexual assault. Since 2017, much of the media’s portrayal of the movement has focused on sexual harassment and assault in high profile industries, such as politics and entertainment. NWLC’s focus, however, is on the standard employees across all industries.
According to the report, representatives from the NWLC worked with lawyers, legislators, and assault survivors to pinpoint gaps in workplace harassment laws and widen the scope of what is considered harassment at work. Some of the areas that the new laws focused on include extending statutes of limitations so that employees who are harassed are able to report the incident on their own time, revising the arbitrary standard that harassment must be considered “severe or pervasive” in order to constitute a hostile work environment, and requiring anti-harassment training in all workplaces. They also focused on crafting policies with language that’s inclusive of those who are most vulnerable to harassment––such as women of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community.
“For women of color, the harassment they are experiencing is being driven by their race and their gender combined,” said Johnson. “Often, sexual harasment is combined with other forms of discrimination, such as pay discrimination or being denied an accomodation while pregnant. We need to ensure that more state laws are taking these intersections into account, and many have as of 2019.”
According to Giovanna A. D’Orazio, an attorney at the New York City-based law firm D’Orazio Peterson LLP, policy changes in New York have greatly changed the way that harassment is being handled throughout the state. “In our practice, failure to take complaints seriously and a lack of adequate complaint policies and procedures has historically been a big problem,” she said. “Now there is more risk to employers if they do not respond to complaints properly or ensure an appropriate work environment.”
Still, while many states have taken important steps to ensure workers safety, even more have not. To improve this, many groups have been quick to organize ––notably, New York State’s Sexual Harassment Working Group (which is made up of seven former state legislative staffers who all reported sexual harassment on the job) has held two public hearings this year to allow lawyers, advocates, and victims of harassment to speak directly to litigators about how their needs can be better met by policy adjustments.
“Law is not the only piece, but it’s an essential piece,” Johnson said. “We need cultural change, organizing, and constant open conversation in order to protect the employees who are the most vulnerable.”
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