Editor’s Note: Tina Tchen is a partner at Buckley Sandler and leads its Workplace Cultural Compliance Practice. She is the cofounder of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund and previously served as Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.
When we think about the #MeToo movement, we often think about the high-profile cases — the Harvey Weinsteins, Bill Cosbys and Matt Lauers. But in the past year, thousands of women — and yes, men, too — have come forward.
They don’t make the front page, but their stories are no less important. Workplace sexual harassment is a disease that infects all industries. But for some, it can be nearly impossible to find a way out of a dangerous situation.
Since January, the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund has received more than 3,500 requests for assistance from workers in more than 60 different industries in all 50 states. Two-thirds of requests came from low-income workers. Nearly 40% are women of color and one in 10 are in the LGBTQ community. We’ve connected them with attorneys that have offered their assistance, often pro bono or at a reduced fee.
But even if we help all these women find justice, what happens to those who remain silent?
A recent SourceMedia study found that 63% of women and 51% of men experienced or witnessed sexual harassment in the workplace. We now know that one of the reasons they don’t come forward is out of fear — fear that doing so would hurt their career. And fear that their story — no matter how detailed — would not change anything in their workplace.
In order to truly eliminate sexual harassment in our society, we must fix a workplace culture that has allowed this issue to fester and grow.
Some have argued that if companies and employees just follow the law, we wouldn’t have any workplace harassment issues. What they fail to recognize is that existing laws and regulations have not caught up to where our society is in 2018.
One clear example is bystander protections. Currently, federal law does not protect bystanders who come forward to report harassment that they’ve witnessed. An employer can say it wants employees to support one another, but the law doesn’t give them specific protections to avoid retribution.
Companies need to be ahead of the law — more active and progressive in changing their cultures for the better. Simply doing what the law requires means upholding a status quo that has failed far too many people.
Before #MeToo, an employee’s allegations of misconduct would typically prompt mandatory staff trainings. HR might revise company policies, but rarely was there one central decision-maker who could institute widespread change. The responsibility of addressing these issues was often spread between different departments — HR, compliance, legal, etc. Sometimes, the assailant would be reprimanded. But if we’ve learned anything over the past year, it’s that a slap on the wrist does little to change a company’s culture.
There has been a growing acknowledgment that this siloed approach has not led to sufficient progress, and more aggressive action is needed. How do we do that? It starts by promoting policies that emphasize a commitment to diversity and inclusion. This includes instituting company policies that guarantee equal pay, paid family leave, flexible scheduling, fair hiring, and promotion and retention practices.
Ensure more women at the top
It also means fixing the issues that still exist at the top. Only about 20% of US corporate board members are female. States are beginning to recognize the disparity. California recently passed a law that requires publicly traded companies headquartered in the state to place at least one woman on their boards in the next several years. The European Union has taken even more aggressive steps and is pushing for 40% of a company’s directors be female.
A company’s culture is set by its leaders. Having women in these positions means a company is more likely to recognize and address workplace cultural issues in a holistic way. Women bring a unique perspective on how a company can modernize its policies.
I commend the women and men who have come forward for sharing their stories — not just because of their bravery, but because they are playing important roles in ushering in a new standard for workplace culture. Real progress does not happen overnight, and one year after the #MeToo movement erupted, we are starting to see early signs of change.
It will be on all of us to continue the momentum.