On October 15, 2017, the #MeToo movement began in earnest following a tweet by actress Alyssa Milano. To commemorate the one-year anniversary of the #MeToo movement, the Orrick Employment Law and Litigation Blog will analyze the effects of the movement from the employment perspective. Part 1 below looks at the movement’s impact on sexual harassment claims in the workplace, Part 2 focuses on the legislative reaction to the movement, and Part 3 discusses how employers have responded to #MeToo.
Born in 2006, and propelled to widespread popularity with a tweet, the #MeToo movement went viral a year ago on October 15, 2017. The #MeToo campaign was originally founded by Tarana Burke in 2006 to spread awareness and support for survivors of sexual harassment and assault. Following the accusations against Harvey Weinstein, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.” Over the past year, thanks to widespread media coverage, the movement has left an indelible impact on all facets of society, including the workplace.
The social media hashtag, which has reportedly been tweeted over 6.5 million times globally, is just one of many ways that the movement has gained traction. Over the past year, the media has given significant attention to the movement and the underlying issues of sexual harassment and sexual assault. According to the Women’s Media Center study titled “Media and #MeToo,” newspaper coverage of cases or allegations related to sexual assault or sexual harassment accusations increased overall. For example, the number of articles on sexual assault has increased more than 30% between May 2017 and August 2018. When articles focused on the #MeToo movement are included in the analysis, the total coverage has increased 52%. In addition, #MeToo is a prevalent theme at Women’s Marches nationwide. And, the movement garnered increased publicity during the confirmation hearings for Justice Brett Kavanaugh and media coverage of other high-profile individuals accused of unlawful sexual misconduct.
Though the #MeToo movement has had significant momentum over the last year, it faces criticism as well. Critics raise concerns of false accusations of harassment or assault that can lead to lasting personal and professional effects. There are also fears that it will cause women to lose opportunities at work because men will be hesitant to work with or mentor them. In fact, Vice President Mike Pence made headlines when it surfaced last year that he refuses to dine alone with any woman besides his wife. But regardless of viewpoint, it is undeniable that the #MeToo movement has had a significant impact on the workplace.
All of this attention has seemingly empowered women and even men like never before to report inappropriate behavior in the workplace. Indeed, the EEOC recently announced its preliminary FY 2018 sexual harassment data, which shows “the heightened demand of the #MeToo movement” on the agency’s sexual harassment enforcement efforts. Explaining that it has done “significant work this past fiscal year to address the pervasive problem of workplace harassment,” the EEOC disclosed that it filed 41 lawsuits alleging sexual harassment in fiscal year 2018, a 50 percent increase in such cases over the prior year. Moreover, charges filed with the EEOC alleging sexual harassment over the past year increased by more than 12 percent from fiscal year 2017. The agency recovered nearly $70 million for the victims of sexual harassment through litigation and administrative enforcement, $22.5 million more than the prior year. And visits to the EEOC’s sexual harassment webpage more than doubled in October 2017, and have largely remained above corresponding 2017 levels throughout 2018.
But the EEOC statistics do not tell the whole story. Rather than file a charge with the EEOC, employees with allegations of sexual harassment may file with a state agency, such as the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, or make internal complaints directly with their employer. All indications show that reporting of sexual harassment claims has increased across the board, regardless of the manner of complaint.
Over the past year, the #MeToo movement has shed light on sexual harassment issues in employment and encouraged countless individuals to take action when they feel harassed in the workplace. Employers should confirm that their relevant policies comply with the new state legislation enacted in response to the #MeToo movement (see Part 2 of this series) and take affirmative steps to address the #MeToo movement’s impact on the workplace (see Part 3 of this series).