#MeToo & Sexual Harassment in the Workplace

What #MeToo is Teaching Massachusetts Women about Reporting Sexual Harassment at Work.

#MeToo & Sexual Harassment in the Workplace, accusations of sexual harassment in the workplace are on the rise in Massachusetts, but why now? Sexual harassment is not a new occurrence by any means–women have been objectified and harassed since before they entered the workforce. The term “sexual harassment” originally coined in the 1970’s to raise awareness about women’s struggles for social equality is now receiving a much needed injection back into the national dialogue from the #MeToo movement.

#MeToo & Sexual Harassment in the Workplace
Photo by Mihai Surdu on Unsplash

Where It Started

The #MeToo movement originally started in 2006 by activist Tarana Burke was catapulted to the forefront of the public consciousness in October 2017 when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted in solidarity with Rose McGowan over sexual harassment allegations against American film producer Harvey Weinstein.

The #MeToo movement quickly picked up speed and soon allegations surfaced regarding powerful men in Hollywood, the entertainment industries, and even higher education. Since April of 2017, 219 celebrities, politicians, CEO’s and other prominent figures have been accused of sexual misconduct. The #Metoo movement has only picked up momentum and doesn’t show any signs of stopping.

Women everywhere have been empowered by the words of Alyssa Milano and her urging to “write #Metoo if you’ve been sexually harassed or insulted”. The tweet that was heard around the world sparked a global debate as women came out in droves utilizing social media as a vehicle for them to share publicly their experiences with sexual violence and assault.

The outward ripple of this incendiary movement is now being felt directly by attorneys and government officials in the state of Massachusetts. The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination reported that allegations soared up by 400% in February of 2018 alone compared with 2017. Chairwoman of the Commission Sunila Thomas George was quoted in the Boston Globe as saying “This is just the beginning — we’re going to see months and months of higher numbers compared to years past…we think it’s going to be record breaking”.

So what is the movement that has called out powerful men in Hollywood, business and academia doing for women in Massachusetts?

1- Massachusetts Women Are Feeling Safer About Reporting Workplace Harassment

While sexual harassment was officially made illegal in 1964, women have spent decades attempting to rid themselves of the stigma attached to reporting incidents of unwanted sexual behavior at work. It wasn’t until nearly three decades later during the historic Anita Hill case in 1991 that the barriers of social stigma around speaking out began to come crumbling down. The nation was on the edge of it’s seats that year as University of Oklahoma law professor Anita Hill took her stand against Clarence Thomas who at that time was nominated for a position of associate supreme court justice.

Where Anita Hill opened the national dialogue, #MeToo has come behind and shown the nation that we still have much more work to do in breaking the silence that historically follows an incident of sexual harassment. A 2015 study by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) shows the staggering statistic of unreported workplace harassment. The report states that “the extent of non-reporting is striking….approximately 70% of individuals who experienced harassment never even talked with a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct”. Review of this data begets the question, why do so many instances of sexual harassment go unreported?

The 2015 study goes on to list the reasons why so many victims of harassment choose not to report–and the reasons are substantiated and many. Victims of sexual harassment often fear coming forward for a litany of reasons from fear of judgement by their peers and colleagues, to fear that their claims will not be believed, or the fear that they will somehow be implicated in the crime. EEOC cited a 2003 study reporting that “75% of employees who spoke out against workplace mistreatment faced some form of retaliation”.

#MeToo is playing a crucial role in evolving the cultural dialogue about sexual harassment in Massachusetts. The dramatic increase in complaints of sexual misconduct and harassment stands as an example to all employers that the women of Massachusetts are coming forward and speaking out. The #MeToo movement has made space for these women to air their grievances and share their stories. Over 12,000 attended the Massachusetts Conference for Women in December 2017 where Shelley Zalis CEO of the consulting firm Female Quotient stated “this is not a new story…the new story is that we’re using our voices and we feel comfortable now because we’re all rallying together.”

2- It Is Changing The Definition of What Sexual Harassment Is

The traditional definition of sexual harassment is split into two categories–quid pro quo harassment and hostile workplace harassment. The official definitions as we know them today were developed in the early days when sexual harassment law necessitated that explicit definitions of what is and isn’t sexual harassment be recorded.

Quid Pro Quo Harassment:

“Massachusetts law describes Quid Pro Quo harassment as sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct, which the submission or rejection thereof become the basis for employment decisions or a term or condition of employment.” -Massachusetts Committee Against Discrimination


Hostile Workplace Harassment:

“Sexual advances, requests for sexual favors, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature that have the purpose or effect of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance by creating an intimidating, hostile, humiliating or sexually offensive work environment.”

What #MeToo is showing us however is that sexual harassment is more subversive than the type of behavior typically detailed in the standard workplace training video.

The conversation is changing to highlight that sexual harassment isn’t just the overt groping and crewd comments detailed in office training videos. Instead, what the #Metoo movement is bringing into consciousness is that sexual harassment can involve any situation in which there is a unequal balance of power causing another individual to feel less-than due to their gender or personal attributes. Paula Johnson President of Wellesley College in Eastern Mass commented recently in an articleabout sexual harassment in higher education, stating that “the cumulative effect of sexual harassment is extremely damaging”, she urges the public to understand that sexual harassment is inherently about power dynamics, “the put-downs as opposed to the come-ons”. The #MeToo movement is helping women everywhere to understand how to call out and name the oppression they are feeling as the result of uneven power dynamics in the workplace. While these behaviors are difficult to articulate and further difficult to prove as being directly related to sexual harassment–many times they have shown to have laid the groundwork for further sexual assault and overt gender discrimination.

#MeToo shows us that the greatest power women have in battling sexual harassment in the workplace is their voices. SPEAK UP.

#MeToo shows us that the greatest power women have in battling sexual harassment in the workplace is their voices. SPEAK UP.
Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

3- #MeToo is reshaping the landscape of how employers are expected to respond to sexual harassment in the workplace

As the definition and understanding of sexual harassment continues to evolve #MeToo is teaching Massachusetts employers that office culture must evolve as well. In these days of heightened awareness it is simply not enough for employers to teach their employees how to recognize behavior when it happens–#MeToo is teaching women to expect more from them. Rather than take a passive reactionary stance against workplace assault or sexual violence #MeToo has turned up the pressure on employers to take an active role in fundamentally changing the office culture around employee dynamics and sexual harassment.

Employers who were once content to do the legally mandated minimum with regards to sexual harassment training and awareness now run the risk of exposing themselves to scrutiny from those who expect them to have a responsibility to do more. David Ballard, the director of the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence was quoted in response to their poll Workplace Sexual Harassment: Are Employers Actually Responding?” as saying:

“The #MeToo movement has given business leaders an opportunity to finally take real action addressing a complex problem that has been pervasive for generations…..Avoiding the issue is bad for employee well-being and business, but so, too, is a narrow, compliance-based approach. We know from psychological science that relying solely on mandated training designed primarily to limit the organization’s legal liability is unlikely to be effective.”

What should employers be doing to change office culture?

Leave Nothing in the Dark:

Employers should foster a zero-tolerance based culture and encourage employees to speak up immediately if any form of sexual harassment is witnessed in the workplace. Employees should be made to feel safe about calling out negative behavior and should be continuously reinforced that reporting sexual harassment will not be punished under any circumstances.

Employees should be made to feel comfortable in calling out off-color jokes, unwanted physical contact, or the use of pet names such as “sweetie”, even if it was not meant with malicious intent. Co-workers should be encouraged to act as social guardrails for each other to address behavior which another employee may not realize is offensive to someone. This can effectively curb negative behavior and reduce the probability that negative power dynamics will gain any traction in the office culture.

Companies should go a step further and should include language about bystander interventions in their updated sexual harassment policy.

Encourage Diversity in Positions of Power:

Businesses that strive to create gender, race and ethnic diversity in management and C-suite positions send a clear message to the company and general public that they are able to recognize strength in everyone. This creates a culture of inclusiveness and stands as a powerful reminder that there is room at the top for people of widely different races, genders and backgrounds within the organization.

Put a Strong Sexual Harassment Policy in Place:

Companies should have a robust sexual harassment policy in place that is incorporated as part of the company on-boarding policy. The policy should be easily accessible in the employee handbook and should include language about there being zero-tolerance for harassment and discrimination.

The policy should also explicitly state that it applies to ALL employees of the company including management, and that reporting instances of harassment will not negatively impact a person’s employment in any way.

The policy should be retrained yearly and regularly referenced in situations regarding office culture. Management should set the tone for the rest of the team that the sexual harassment policy is taken very seriously in the company and the zero-tolerance policy strictly enforced.

The lesson that we all stand to learn from #MeToo is that sexual harassment is still a pervasive problem in our modern workforce and that each of us has a responsibility to stand up and speak out. We must all be active participants in preventing harassment, doing so will help us as a society to cultivate a workforce focused on mutual respect, integrity and diversity.

What should someone who feels that they have been the victim of sexual harassment do?

The Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD) protects “workers from discriminatory treatment based on your membership in a protected class, such as race, color, creed, national origin, age, disability, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, and more”.

The MCAD dictates that you have 300 days from the last discriminatory act to file an official complaint. If you or someone you know feels that they have been the victim of workplace harassment it is crucial that you speak up as soon as the incident happens.

Working with an experienced attorney can ensure that your rights are protected and a successful resolution is reached on your case. The Law Offices of Michael O. Shea have 25 years of experience working in employment law and litigation with a focus as a sexual harassment lawyer in Massachusetts.

Call today for a free consultation.

(617) 350-9969 Boston, MA

(413) 733-1955 Springfield, MA

(413) 596-8005 Wilbraham, MA

(508) 753-9350 Worcester, MA