Nearly four years after the #MeToo movement sparked a national reckoning on sexual harassment in the workplace, allegations against New York Governor Andrew Cuomo have pushed the topic back in the spotlight.
Cuomo has been accused by two former female aides of inappropriate comments and behavior, prompting an investigation led by state attorney general Letitia James. A third woman, Anna Ruch has made similar allegations, saying Cuomo placed his hand on her lower back at a wedding reception in 2019, grabbed her face, and asked if he could kiss her.
Cuomo apologized Wednesday during a news conference.
“I now understand that I acted in a way that made people feel uncomfortable,” he said. “It was unintentional, and I truly and deeply apologize for it.”
However, he said, “I never touched anyone inappropriately.”
Though the #MeToo movement led to the ouster of numerous prominent men working in Hollywood, journalism and corporate America, sexual harassment remains prevalent in the workplace as does retaliation against those who report it, legal advocates say.
But states continue to push laws aimed at rooting out such conduct. Some survivors of abuse in the workplace are winning relief from the courts. And experts say the fact that those who experience harassment continue to report it is another sign of the #MeToo movement’s positive impact.
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“One of the strongest pieces of evidence I can think of around the effectiveness of #MeToo is that people came forward to make allegations against arguably the most powerful person in New York,” says Fatima Goss Graves, president and CEO of the National Women’s Law Center (NWLC).
There will still be bosses who abuse their power, Graves says. But the MeToo movement “interrupted our long-standing silencing of survivors, and created not only a cultural conversation but also shifts in institutions, in our laws, in the way that people understood that harassment and violence at work …can not be tolerated.’’
Workplace harassment, retaliation remain high
The number of women saying they’ve been sexually harassed on the job has been gradually declining since #MeToo went viral, dropping from one in four women in 2017-2018, to one in five last year, according to surveys by Comparably.com, a workplace culture and compensation monitoring site.
Currently, one in six female workers say they’ve experienced misconduct, though Comparably says that drop could be due partly to many employees working remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yet, estimates of the percentage of women who will be sexually harassed at work at some point in their careers range from roughly 25% to more than 80%, according to research reviewed by The Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) and noted in a 2018 paper.
“Sexual harassment is still very commonplace in nearly every field,” says Noreen Farrell, executive director of Equal Rights Advocates, a legal nonprofit. “But it’s clear the #MeToo movement has made people more comfortable coming forward to report it, … We’re seeing more victims find strength in each other to take action and hold serial harassers accountable.”
Speaking up, however, often leads to backlash. More than 70% of those subjected to sexual harassment at work were retaliated against, according to a report released in October by the National Women’s Law Center.
The high-profile inquiry into Cuomo’s conduct provides a critical opportunity to model how such allegations should be treated, says Graves, who is also a co-founder of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. That group connects survivors of workplace sexual abuse with legal help.
“It’s important people who come forward don’t experience retaliation of any kind,” she says. And it’s critical “that the investigation looks at (not only) the specific conduct, but probably a wider set of circumstances around the people who may have … helped create the conditions where harassment occurs.”
Activist Tarana Burke started the #MeToo movement fifteen years ago but it garnered global attention in 2017 when dozens of allegations against one-time Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein exposed the widespread problem of sexual harassment and abuse in the workplace.
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Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Kevin Spacey were among the prominent personalities whose careers ended after accusations that they engaged in predatory behavior. Several states, including California and New York, passed legislation focused on better training and awareness. And companies changed policies, including Microsoft which said it would allow workers who previously had contracts with arbitration clauses to take their complaints to court.
Backlash to the movement followed as well, with critics saying punishment for some alleged offenses went too far. And some advocates complained that not enough attention was paid to the more complex challenges faced by women of color and low-wage workers who experience harassment disproportionately.
“It’s going to take a lot more than several high-profile cases to disrupt workplace and sexual harassment,” says C. Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR).
“The #MeToo movement is one lever of change and has done much to raise awareness about workplace and sexual harassment,” she says. But “we still live in (a) culture …that doesn’t value women in the workplace and believes that harassment comes with the territory, she says, adding that legal remedies fall short and often place the onus on women to combat or prove harassment.”
Harassment suits, remedies continue
Steps are still being taken to make workplaces safer. Since September, states have introduced 100 pieces of legislation aimed at addressing harassment, according to the NWLC.
Some workers are also suing their employers and winning. On Feb. 26, three Latina women who claimed they were sexually harassed and assaulted while working as custodians for the facility management company ABM Industries won a financial settlement, according to Equal Rights Advocates, which represented the women.
The settlement also mandates ABM put in place safety procedures for janitors and supervisors working in California, including pairing two or more workers for certain tasks, making sure harassment trainings and materials are in English and Spanish and aiming to hire and promote more women to leadership roles.
Since 2018, 4,979 workers, most of them women, have sought assistance through the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund. The Fund is also specifically providing financial assistance for 30 individual cases and two class-action suits filed against McDonald’s by workers claiming they’ve been sexually harassed.
More progress needed
But more progress is needed, says IWPR’s Mason.
“The road to a legal or monetary victory is expensive, long, and (a) winding road,” she says of litigation. “Many women never see this kind of accountability. Most just move on or in some instances remain silent.”
New state laws have extended the time a person can report harassment and the remedies that are available in response to such mistreatment, she says. “In the wake of the movement, companies have also worked to update their workplace policies and practices. However, legal remedies, policies, and practices must be coupled with culture change, and we’re not there yet.”
Employers can encourage workers to come forward with complaints by making reporting procedures clear, looking into every allegation, and clearly saying what measures will be taken to hold harassers accountable, says Farrell of Equal Rights Advocates. Bystanders should also be trained on how to respond if they see misconduct.
“Every person deserves to feel safe at work,” Farrell says, “and those who have been sexually harassed deserve justice and healing.”
Follow Charisse Jones on Twitter @charissejones