#MeToo Five Years On: Persistence, Progress, and Policy Change on Workplace Sexual Harassment

By Pawanpreet Dhaliwal

This October marks the fifth anniversary of the #MeToo movement. Decades of silence and tacit acceptance by employers of workplace sexual harassment were finally, loudly, and justifiably challenged. The combined courageous voices of millions of working women, building on decades of persistent activism, made clear that this abhorrent conduct would no longer be dismissed or swept under the rug. Those who engage in sexual harassment and employers allowing such acts to go unchecked and unpunished would at long last be held to account.

Five years on, we consider the profound ways it has impacted women and victims of sexual harassment in the workplace. We also look ahead at the movement’s continuing evolution and what women entering the workforce today can and should expect from their colleagues, employers, and legislators.

The Foundations of the #MeToo Movement

The number of women in the American workforce grew consistently over the course of the 20th Century and into the 21st. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, women comprised about 20% of all people in the labor force in 1920. Today, about 47% of American workers are women.

Unfortunately, this growth in the number of women in the workplace did not come with a corresponding growth in male attitudes about and behavior toward working women. Too many male employees and others in positions of authority retained misogynistic and entitled mindsets about their female colleagues, engaging in verbal and physical harassment with little fear of accountability or negative consequences. That is because most employers adopted a largely dismissive, “boys will be boys” approach to this misconduct.

In the 1970s, women began collectively speaking up and calling out workplace sexual abuse and harassment. Women organizing at Cornell University during that decade are credited with coining the term “sexual harassment.” In her groundbreaking 1976 work “Sexual Harassment of Working Women,” Catharine MacKinnon defined “sexual harassment” as the “unwanted imposition of sexual requirements in the context of a relationship of unequal power.” She argued that sexual harassment in the workplace constituted sex discrimination under Title VII of the United States Civil Rights Act of 1964. 

A half-century later, the efforts of those organizers and activists have indelibly impacted the lives of women and other historically marginalized individuals. In recent years, a new generation of activists belonging to the #MeToo movement has refocused attention on sexual abuse in every aspect of society, including the workplace, and successfully advocated for more robust legal protections, including amendments to strengthen workplace anti-harassment laws throughout the country.

Enough Is Enough: #MeToo Is Born

The term #MeToo was coined by Tarana Burke, who founded the movement in 2006 to address the persistence of sexual abuse towards Black women. The spark lit by Burke became a raging brushfire in the wake of an October 2017 news article detailing decades of sexual harassment and abuse allegations against powerful Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. The hashtag quickly went viral, with a host of celebrities, working women, and other victims publicly speaking out about the sexual abuse they “too” had endured. 

From Protest to Policy

The movement soon became a catalyst for new laws focused on both preventing workplace sexual harassment and holding individuals and organizations accountable for their misconduct.

Many states made substantive changes to existing anti-harassment laws, including by clarifying the standards courts used to establish a sexual harassment hostile work environment claim and making it easier for employees to file, litigate, and prevail on harassment and discrimination claims against California employers.

New laws in several states also addressed non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) which employers regularly used to prevent victims of sexual harassment from speaking out after they settled their claims. Such laws include California’s STAND Act in 2018 and the Silence No More Act in 2022, limiting employers’ ability to silence victims with broad NDAs when they speak out about discrimination and harassment claims. Sixteen states in have enacted restrictions on NDAs since 2017, according to a  National Women’s Law Center report.

#MeToo also spurred significant change in federal law, most notably through the Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021, passed with rare and large bipartisan support in both houses of Congress.

As with NDAs, companies often relied on mandatory arbitration clauses in employment contracts to keep sexual harassment allegations out of the courthouse and out of the public eye. Under the new law, companies can no longer force employee claims of sexual assault, harassment, and misconduct into arbitration.

The #MeToo movement and the racial justice protests that followed the murder of George Floyd in 2020 also increased the spotlight on intersectional claims, illuminating the unique, interlocking forms of discrimination and harassment Black women face in the workplace and throughout society compared to Black men and white women.

The Future of #MeToo

Looking ahead, it is important to recognize that, at its core, workplace sexual harassment is about power dynamics and the abuse of that power by those holding it. As long as they remain unequal in the workplace, whether in compensation or otherwise, women and marginalized communities will remain vulnerable to harassment and abuse.

To remedy this, we need to strengthen our equal pay laws, following the lead of California and other states aggressively addressing this issue. Expanding family leave benefits both at the state and federal levels is also crucial. And in a post-Roe v. Wade world that will only perpetuate unequal economic conditions in the workplace, legislators need to address the detrimental impact of the Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision on working women.

In coming posts during and following this anniversary month, we will address other issues related to the #MeToo movement, workplace sexual harassment and misconduct, and how victims can fight back.