Why We Are Still Talking About #MeToo at Work

The #MeToo movement is often described as having sparked a “conversation.” Indeed, survivors have spoken, and collectively their voices have been heard. Although the response has certainly been substantial, the conversation is still in many ways one-sided. In a recent Bloomberg Law article, Proskauer Rose attorneys Sydney Cone, Kate Gold, Atoyia Harris, and Sehreen Ladak outline the #MeToo movement’s progress thus far—applauding its victories while highlighting the gaps that still pervade the conversation five years later. 

Since its viral outset in 2017, the #MeToo movement has set the foundation for several notable developments. In the corporate realm, for instance, an increasing number of employers have implemented mandatory sexual harassment prevention trainings and educational opportunities. These efforts focus on establishing stricter standards for conduct and compliance in the workplace. Moreover, the #MeToo response has resulted in new policy initiatives. President Biden’s Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021 marked a pivotal point in this progression. The Act importantly defined sexual harassment claims as a category of law distinct from other workplace misconduct claims. Under the Act, sexual harassment claims would inherit a type of protective immunity because they would no longer be subject to arbitration and nondisclosure agreements. 

More recently, the Senate advanced another initiative, by passing the SPEAK Out Act in September. By making nondisclosure and non-disparagement clauses unenforceable in sexual harassment and sexual assault disputes nationwide, the Act was formed with the intention of empowering survivors and averting further harm in the workplace. 

While these emerging initiatives suggest a positive shift in the prevention of and protection against workplace sexual violence, the numbers say otherwise. Statistics collected by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) demonstrate that instances of workplace sexual harassment have not followed this anticipated downward trend. In fact, the number of sexual harassment charges increased significantly in the years that immediately followed the viral expansion of the #MeToo movement in the Fall of 2017. Moreover, wide scale surveys indicate a growing disparity between the number of actual incidents and formally filed complaints. In a 2022 survey of women working in STEM, an alarming 62% of respondents noted incidents of sexual harassment at their places of employment. Only 29% of these individuals filed formal complaints. 

Pointing to these numbers is in no way an attempt to discredit the enormous gains that have stemmed from the #MeToo movement. Rather, they serve as a guide for ongoing conversations around the sexual harassment and assault in the workplace. In the majority of studies on workplace conduct, the prevalence of sexual harassment in professional spaces is attributed to power inequalities and the continuation of gender stereotypes. A 2020 Hollywood Commission survey on accountability found that only 35% of respondents felt that it was at least somewhat likely that an employee in a position of power or authority would be held accountable for sexually harassing an individual in a subordinate position. Interestingly, however, the frequency of harassment does not tend to decrease when the roles of power and gender are inverted. A 2020 study published by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences revealed that instances of sexual harassment actually multiply when women dominate spaces of authority and leadership. The authors of the study attributed this correlation to an evolving conscious or subconscious desire for “status equalization” as more women occupy positions of power. 

Without undermining the fact that women—and particularly women of color—are disproportionately impacted by sexual harassment and violence in the workplace, it is also important to note that people of all gender identities are affected. Across data samples, men constitute a much smaller percentage of overall reported cases of sexual harassment and violence. However, this is not an entirely accurate representation. According to a 2018 Marketplace-Edison Research Poll, nearly one in seven men have endured workplace sexual harassment, demonstrating that men are less likely than women to speak out. Again, the conversation turns to gender norms and stigmas, but the solution is not straightforward. 

The frequency of incidents of sexual harassment creates a common human experience of normalized violence. Goss Graves, the National Women’s Law Center director, explains that “our goal has to be ending sexual violence . . . The real goal feels giant, and not achievable overnight.” Legislative and corporate policy changes alone cannot achieve complete systemic reform. Recent policy initiatives are tremendous for survivors, but they are fragments of the wider conversation. The response survivors seek is expansive and multifarious, yet it shares a common root: education. Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, explains that children must be taught “to reject rape culture and respect bodily autonomy.” Educating young people about consent and holding upcoming generations to a higher standard is integral to reshaping norms and expectations for conduct within academic, professional, and social settings. #MeToo amplified the conversation, and now we must continue to ignite the response.