March 12, 2020
  • Hollywood producer’s conviction signals change in #MeToo era
  • Seeking civil remedies still remains risky for victims

A central target of the #MeToo movement now faces more than two decades in prison, but in the workplace, some advocates say the scales remain tilted against victims of harassment and discrimination.

Harvey Weinstein’s 23-year sentence for sexual assault marks a watershed moment for the movement, which was sparked in part by claims the Hollywood producer harassed, manipulated, and raped dozens of women over decades. Since late 2017, unprecedented attention has been drawn to harassment, as a wave of victims came forward and high-profile men in a wide array of industries were publicly shamed.

The criminal case stands in contrast to battles playing out in civil court, where a rising number of lawsuits aiming to hold companies accountable for unequal pay and promotion practices, as well as harassment, have been filed.

Barriers remain steep for those fighting to vindicate or eradicate harassment and discrimination, thanks to practices that can insulate companies from liability, contracts that stifle patterns of misconduct, and roadblocks for discrimination class actions, said Kalpana Kotagal, partner with Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll. This is particularly true for low-wage workers with limited financial resources and diminishing options to band together to avoid retaliation.

“We are all worried about harassment in the workplace, but what we miss is that the barriers that prevent workers are structural ones,” Kotagal said. “Weinstein’s conviction is an important moment, but we need to ask where do we go next? What are the hurdles for workers that experience harassment?”

Dozens of states proposed laws to address harassment in various ways and companies adopted new trainings and reevaluated how to address employee complaints. But these employers are largely left to self-police and invest in these practices, while imbalances still exist in pay and promotions for women and people of color. In surveys, female employees say they don’t think their own workplaces have changed since #MeToo, and many say they still fear retaliation for reporting harassment.

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