But the dispiriting reality is that the past year has seen only baby steps in the right direction. Women (and men) might be speaking their truth in record numbers, but the same (mostly) guys who for years have done nothing to stop harassment at companies large and small — and, in fact, have been retaliating against accusers, forcing them into secret arbitration hearings and absorbing the cost of settling their claims — are still the ones in charge. This hard truth was made especially obvious by the recent reporting on CBS’s Les Moonves and the allegations of abuse dating back to the 1980s. One revelation was particularly sickening: In January, well into the #MeToo moment, Moonves informed some members of the network’s board of directors that the Los Angeles Police Department was investigating him for forcing a woman to perform oral sex, as well as exposing himself to her and throwing her against a wall. Those individuals — board members at a network already caught enabling Charlie Rose’s prolific misconduct for decades — did nothing. (Even when the New Yorker published the first of its two exposés about Moonves in late July, detailing accusations of violent sexual abuse of six women, he kept his job, and segments of the board were defiantly supportive, with one member stating, “I don’t care if 30 more women come forward and allege this kind of stuff.”) Ultimately, according to recent reports, what finally sunk Moonves wasn’t his conduct toward women; it was his lack of candor toward the board. Of course, even though more allegations have come to light, he may still get a $120 million severance package — the softest of landings for an alleged serial predator.
It’s episodes like these — see also: Google’s eight-figure payouts to accused harassers — that make overcoming the institutional indifference to women’s experiences feel impossible. And while well-meaning men vowing to be instruments of change are welcome allies, they’re simply not enough. The eloquent rage of Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and his male colleagues at the sham Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, when allegations of sexual assault against the Supreme Court justice were considered, acted as a tonic. But with power firmly in the hands of those who cared more about a man’s future success than a woman’s past suffering, what did it get us? I know I wasn’t alone in feeling more hopeless on the anniversary of #MeToo than before the movement began.
The only way past these moments of despair is to remember that change can happen. After all, “sexual harassment” didn’t even have a name until 1975. Employers, specifically, can end the harassment on their watch, in their workplaces. They certainly know how to do it after a scandal hits, when they hire outside luminaries like former attorney general Eric Holder to investigate, clean house and put new safeguards in place. And some employers truly do want to stop harassment from metastasizing; my friends in the management-side legal bar say their phones have been ringing off the hook since the #MeToo movement began, with clients wanting to do better. Indeed, there is a virtual cottage industry of experts ready to revamp internal policies, procedures and training — which, as a landmark U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission report recently told us, all have the power to transform workplace culture, if they are more than window dressing.
As for employers that don’t care to make those investments — and sadly, they are legion — the #MeToo movement has galvanized legislators, workers, consumers and shareholders to take matters into their own hands and make them care. Above all, companies obsess over their bottom lines; if they choose not to root out harassment, then we can make that failure come at a steep cost.
One of the bluntest instruments, surely, is litigation. Fear of lawsuits and the negative press they generate serve as a powerful motivator. But plainly it’s not been enough of a deterrent. For one thing, Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the federal law against workplace sex discrimination, applies only to employers with 15 or more workers. That leaves out domestic workers, employees of small businesses (the ones least likely to have preventive policies or remedial procedures) and other vulnerable groups. The law also doesn’t cover the millions of independent contractors, interns and other “contingent workers.” Venture capitalists who harass entrepreneurs seeking seed money, and legislators who harass lobbyists and journalists, operate outside the formal employer-employee relationship. Statehouses have made modest gains recently in improving coverage for these neglected workers, and a coalition of civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (where I work), has called on Congress to enact similar changes in federal law.
Even where employees can sue, employers create barriers to justice. The Weinstein Company’s aggressive use of nondisparagement and nondisclosure agreements (NDAs) rightfully came under scrutiny. (President Trump has faced criticism for importing this private-sector staple into government employment.) There are two kinds of NDAs: a contract at the start of employment in which a worker agrees not to criticize or disclose wrongdoing at the company, and an agreement when an employer pays a worker not to sue or publicly disclose a harassment claim. The former can violate federal labor law by silencing “concerted activity” among employees and has been outlawed by some states in the wake of #MeToo; some members of Congress have introduced a ban, too. The latter kind of NDA silences victims. While many women want that invisibility, serial confidential settlements help employers hide serial misconduct. At the very least, these agreements should advise signers to get legal advice first and make clear that they still are permitted to share their experiences with government enforcement agencies.
Another egregious barrier to legal recourse is forced arbitration. Most employees would be shocked to learn that when they were hired, they signed away their right ever to go to court if they experience harassment or other discrimination. But that’s the case for more than half of private-sector employees (including those at 80 percent of Fortune 100 companies). Arbitration doesn’t use the same rules of evidence as judicial proceedings, and arbitrators typically are paid by the employer, skewing impartiality. These decisions are neither appealable nor public, so they help protect bad actors the same way NDAs do. Given arbitration’s increasingly bad name, employers can hope for a reputational boost by renouncing it — as Microsoft recently did in cases of alleged harassment, with Google following suit after its employees’ global protests. Of course, the best result would be if Congress acted to make such agreements illegal, but the business lobby and its elected allies have parried every such attempt for years.
Google’s employees aren’t the only ones who have taken to the streets. In September, McDonald’s workers in six cities conducted a one-day walkout to protest rampant sexual harassment, already the subject of litigation. Such tactics aim to make customers pause before grabbing a quick meal. As one protester, Adriana Alvarez, a Chicago McDonald’s employee, told a reporter: “The public does not know what we go through behind the counters, the cash registers, even in the bathrooms, the janitor’s closets. But today, the world will find out more.”
A formal model of worker-driven collaboration with consumers could do incalculable good if adopted more widely. The Fair Food Program, launched in 2011 in the tomato fields of Florida by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, targets degrading work conditions, including brutal sexual abuse. (Some studies have found that 80 percent of female farmworkers have faced harassment, including rape and other assault.) It enlists the consumers of big agriculture — namely, the fast-food restaurants and supermarket chains that spend hundreds of millions of dollars on Florida tomatoes every year, such as Taco Bell, Whole Foods and Walmart — as enforcers against such abuses. The buyers pledge to pull their business from farms that violate a worker-authored code of conduct, and the workers themselves are the monitors. An independent body conducts investigations and unannounced audits of participating farms, with 80 percent of complaints resolved in less than a month. The consequences of violations are swift and strict: Harassers are fired and temporarily banned from reemployment at participating farms, while growers that fall consistently short face probation or suspension from the program.
The results are stunning. Since the program’s inception, no cases of rape or attempted rape have been reported, and only one supervisor has been found to have engaged in physical harassment since 2013. During last year’s growing season, not a single sexual harassment complaint was lodged at more than 70 percent of participating farms. What’s more, only 15 percent of the farms where complaints arose saw evidence of retaliation against accusers. Progress like this would be noteworthy for any industry, but given the exploitative starting point of big agriculture, the transformation is nothing short of miraculous.
The Fair Food Program’s model now covers several agricultural products across half a dozen states. The Vermont-based Milk With Dignity program follows the same approach; it has snagged Ben & Jerry’s as a partner. Such success is replicable in other consumer-driven industries. Indeed, in recognition of the power consumers wield, in September the American Hotel & Lodging Association launched an initiative under which members pledge to undertake anti-harassment measures such as providing “panic buttons” to housekeepers. Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott and Wyndham are among the hotels touting their participation in an effort to win customer loyalty.
Consumer backlash — or the fear of it — is also a powerful motivator for the true boss of any company: its board of directors. Of course, as Weinstein, CBS, Google and countless other recent examples show, boards long have enabled wrongdoers. But that stems from a calculation that protecting a star — a Matt Lauer, a Travis Kalanick — will reap greater dividends than ditching him. Consumer activism can make them reconsider that impulse and take action; and if they don’t, shareholders are the ultimate potent constituency. This year, Twentieth Century Fox paid $90 million to settle a lawsuit brought by shareholders challenging the company’s spending $50 million in just one year to settle harassment claims. The company created a novel entity to oversee anti-harassment efforts, the Fox News Workplace Professionalism and Inclusion Council, comprising internal HR executives plus four independent experts, including a former federal judge. Other companies facing shareholder lawsuits over their mishandling of harassment allegations include Wynn Resorts (at last count, no fewer than six cases stemming from its millions of dollars in payouts to settle claims against former CEO Steve Wynn) and Nike (following the filing of a class-action sex discrimination lawsuit).
None of these strategies is a panacea for the American workplace. Eradicating on-the-job harassment requires wholesale shifts in how we approach gender, sexuality, power and opportunity in every facet of our world — beginning with how we teach kids to navigate those forces long before they ever earn a paycheck. This is generations-long work, and it will not progress in a straight line. But untold numbers of women have taken the painful step of coming forward and making the world listen to them. Now it’s up to the rest of us to make sure they’ve not done so in vain.
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