All Eyes On #MeToo
A social media campaign inspires collective courage to speak up.
For months, two small words about abuse and power have overwhelmed social media feeds and public conversation, and upended corporate leadership.
The phrase—simultaneously a reassurance, a viral Twitter and Facebook hashtag, and a movement—has become a rallying cry for anyone who has experienced sexual harassment or assault, particularly at work. Accounts of everything from office come-ons to groping to rape continue to bring down a string of actors, filmmakers, journalists, athletes, chefs, politicians, and executives. In the early months of #MeToo, powerful people were accused of harassment at a rate of once every 20 hours—and they fell faster than the news cycle could keep track.
Outrage about this topic has dominated national discourse before, but never with such profound disruption, says Amy Oppenheimer, a Berkeley lawyer who specializes in investigating complaints of harassment and discrimination. “What’s different is that so many women are speaking out about so many different men who are high profile, and who have enjoyed a high degree of power and respect—and that, because of the reaction, they’re not seen as above the law—that there is a consequence,” says Oppenheimer, who has conducted workplace training, mediation, and investigations for 30 years.
#MeToo has sparked a national reevaluation of women’s safety and equity at work. The question now is whether the movement can convert tweets into lasting change.
ORIGINS OF OUTRAGE
Those were the words that social activist and community organizer Tarana Burke wished she’d uttered to comfort a teen girl at a youth camp who confided about her agonizing experience with sexual abuse. That incident was the seed of the #MeToo movement that Burke launched as part of Just Be, the organization she founded in 2006 to support the well-being and healthy development of girls, especially young women of color.
Creating the #MeToo campaign helped give a voice to victims like that young girl and Burke herself. That spark, which had been slowly burning for a decade, ignited a firestorm last October when actress Alyssa Milano tweeted in response to revelations of sexual harassment and assault by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein. Milano—initially knowing nothing of the origin of the phrase—encouraged anyone who’d also been a victim to post “Me too.”
“If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote ‘Me too’ as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem,” the actress’ tweet implored her millions of Twitter followers.
Talk about magnitude: Within 24 hours, the words appeared in at least 53,000 Twitter comments and 12 million Facebook posts, comments, and reactions. By late October, #MeToo echoed through 85 countries via more than 1.7 million tweets—each one a person, an experience, a trauma.
“We’re not looking for validation in our stories; we’re not saying, ‘Trust me; believe me.’ We’re saying, ‘This is what happened,’ and it’s happening in such large numbers that I think it’s really hard to ignore,” says Maimuna Syed, the executive director of Emerge California, a training program for Democratic women who plan to run for office. “This is not a new thing, but I’m glad we’re having conversations now, and I’m looking forward to conversations continuing.”
The smoldering fury behind #MeToo has not been limited to the millions of personal stories of workplace mistreatment. Its rapid spread was fueled by angry reactions to Donald Trump’s demeaning comments about women, including a boast about grabbing women “by the pussy.”
“[Trump’s election] made a lot of women in the state of California and across the country declare to themselves, ‘This is enough. We’re not getting a seat at the table, so we have to make sure we bring our own chair,’ ” says Syed.
#MeToo’s momentum spawned related movements, such as the politics-focused #WeSaidEnough and the Hollywood-based #TimesUp. The issue radiated beyond news feeds; people were talking more openly about harassment and hearing friends, family members, and colleagues say,
A PERVASIVE PROBLEM
The voices in the #MeToo chorus echo across all industries, in companies big and small, in corporations, restaurant kitchens, farm fields, and political offices. Sexual harassment can occur in any venue.
“Sex and power seem to go together, and they have forever,” says Sue Caro, the Bay Area regional vice chairwoman for the California Republican Party. “It’s always around in these types of environments, whether it be corporate or political or you name it.”
Many victims do not report incidents to an HR department or police, making it impossible to nail down firm statistics. But even notoriously difficult-to-verify numbers collected by the government bear out the pervasiveness of the problem. Anywhere from 25 to 85 percent of women have been sexually harassed at work, according to a 2016 study conducted by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
The numbers are tough to confirm in part, the study finds, because many women “do not label certain forms of unwelcome sexually based behaviors—even if they view them as problematic or offensive—as ‘sexual harassment.’ ” Over-the-line jokes and unprofessional comments may seem innocuous, but they often create daily obstacles for women to navigate and make office politics much more complex for women than men, says Joan C. Williams, a professor and the director of the Center for WorkLife Law at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. It’s a common refrain among women who are already isolated to begin with, especially in male-dominated fields.
“There’s nothing subtle about this. Men do not expect to go to work and be sexually derided. We should not need to explain why this is
inappropriate,” Williams says. “There’s a bit of hysteria now among men, like, ‘Oh my God, how am I ever possibly going to figure out what she wants and what she doesn’t want?’ Women want the same thing men want. Men don’t want to go to work and have their crotch grabbed, and women don’t, either.”
Take Amber Maltbie. On the first day of her first job, Maltbie’s boss instructed her to “flirt with men to get them to come into his [auto insurance agency] shop,” she recalls. Humiliated, the 16-year-old never came back from her lunch break.
Now a campaign finance attorney and the chairwoman of Emerge California, Maltbie says that early experience was one of many that taught her a demoralizing lesson on what to expect from the working world. “I long ago accepted sexual harassment as an occupational hazard, like a cost of doing business, and that it was just something that you have to navigate,” she says. “[#MeToo] shed a light on the deep resignation that so many women felt with regard to our options.”
The EEOC estimates that three out of four victims—who are often but not always women—never report the harassment they experience. Many fear they won’t be believed or will be blamed, shamed, or subject to retaliation, despite rules prohibiting it.
“If someone else holds the reins of power, that is a hurdle and a challenge for women to get through that ends up coloring their response—whether they tell, whether they testify, whether they make a move and decide to go somewhere else to work,” says Caro, whose friends and colleagues in Sacramento have shared personal experiences with sexual harassment at work.
The criticisms and personal attacks slung at women like Anita Hill in response to her 1991 congressional testimony, in which she said that then Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her, also contribute to a “deep psychological fear that comes from generations of proof that there are negative consequences for coming forward,” says Maltbie.
That era of silence followed by a public flood of pent-up outrage has played out across the country—and locally. High-profile Bay Area cases include Ellen Pao’s gender discrimination lawsuit against Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield, and Byers; and Susan Fowler’s whistle-blower claims outing ride-share company Uber’s sexist culture in San Francisco.
“I don’t think sexual harassment is about sex at all,” says Maltbie. “It is a power-driven dynamic really meant to keep women ‘in their place’ and keep women down.”
THE MOST VULNERABLE
The reality for most victims, however, is that they can ill afford to risk losing their job or being sidelined as “troublemakers” by stepping forward. Hollywood actresses’ casting couch accounts and high-profile tech firm scandals may have boosted the #MeToo buzz, but the problem is most prevalent in more common jobs that have little visibility and very low pay.
The restaurant industry, for example, has five times the rate of EEOC sexual harassment charges of any other industry. Toxic workplace harassment is also rampant in retail, manufacturing, health care, and agriculture—where isolated work, close quarters, fast-paced environments, and low wages all make women more vulnerable to harassment.
The food world has been rocked with descriptions of renowned chefs and restaurateurs yelling obscenities, making lewd comments, and creating hostile work environments. In the Bay Area, Jeremy Tooker, the founder of Four Barrel Coffee in San Francisco, and chef Charlie Hallowell—the owner of Oakland’s Boot and Shoe Service, Penrose, and Pizzaiolo—have stepped aside following allegations of harassment and vulgar work practices. But the problem is not confined to the back of the house.
Tipped workers such as servers, bartenders, and bussers rely on customer gratuities to make ends meet, subjecting them to patrons’ whims unless managers intervene. California is one of just seven states where people who work for tips earn the state minimum wage—here, it’s $11 per hour—instead of a reduced minimum wage or the federal minimum for tipped workers, $2.13 per hour. The nonprofit Restaurant Opportunities Center (ROC) United reports that women earning $2.13 per hour are twice as likely to face sexual harassment as those who get state minimum wage and three times as likely to have management instruct them to dress “sexier.”
“In other industries, women tolerate harassment. In the restaurant industry, women are encouraged to elicit . . . harassment. Women are told, ‘Go out and get more harassment in order to make more tips,’ ” says Saru Jayaraman, president of ROC United and director of UC Berkeley’s Food Labor Research Center.
Workers of color confront additional challenges; they have a more difficult time getting hired in fine dining or for higher-paid positions such as bartender or server. In the Bay Area, people of color constitute nearly three-quarters of the restaurant labor force but earn $6.12 less than white workers—among the largest race pay gaps in the country, according to a ROC United report.
“So many women have told me, ‘I have experienced harassment in Hollywood, but I didn’t do anything about it because it was never as bad as it was when I was a young woman working in restaurants,’ ” says Jayaraman, who walked the red carpet at the Golden Globes in January with her date, actress and producer Amy Poehler, and other Hollywood elites—all wearing black in support of #MeToo and #TimesUp.
YEAR OF THE WOMAN
In three decades, Oppenheimer says she’s seen “a lot of change and no change” in workplace culture. New policies have increased protections for workers and raised awareness about harassment, she says, but “there’s still really abusive behaviors and men who feel above the law, and in this sense, they are because they’re not held accountable for their actions.”
California requires companies to give supervisors two hours of sexual harassment prevention training every two years. Victims have a six-month window to file a charge with the EEOC and one year to file with the state’s Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which deals with discrimination.
When allegations are raised, employers must respond not only fairly but consistently, “so they’re not saying, ‘Well, if the janitor did it, it’s terminable; but if the senior vice president did it, we’ll give him another chance,’ ” Oppenheimer says.
But cultural change comes from the top, so #MeToo revolutionaries are pushing to get more women into leadership roles to ensure policies are not only adopted, but also enforced.
“Historically, we’ve let men who harass women police themselves, and they’ve often declared themselves innocent,” Syed says. “The media and leadership in a lot of organizations and institutions have provided abusers cover, and instead of talking about it, they attempt to discredit those who are brave enough to speak up.”
In corner offices as well as in elected offices, men still outnumber women by wide margins. But that, too, is changing. Following the 2016 election, Emerge California saw a “Trump bump,” as Syed calls it, with an 87 percent increase in applications for its annual five-month training program. More than half plan to run for office in 2018, alongside even more Emerge alumni. In the coming months, state and local elections up and down California could help crystallize the #MeToo revolution into real change—with nearly 60 female candidates from both political parties.
“Every male legislator who steps down because of sexual misconduct should be replaced by a woman,” says Syed, declaring 2018 the Year of the Woman “to even out the numbers, to shift the playing field, to balance the dynamics. When we have more women at the table, we’re more likely to end sexual harassment and assault.”
So what’s next? #MeToo may have opened up the conversation, but how lawmakers and corporate leaders respond will determine whether the movement will effect real change or fall among the corpses of viral phenomenons.
“It could be changed tomorrow if people wanted to,” says Williams. “They’ve never wanted to. Now, they have to.”
Will Courtenay, an Oakland psychotherapist who specializes in working with men, says the root of the problem—and thus the solution—lies beyond legislative and workplace policy. He says a “culture of manhood” in America instructs men to be aggressive, risk-taking, and predatory, encouraging acts of bravado and one-upmanship that snowball into harassment.
“We can go on prosecuting individual men forever, all the Harvey Weinsteins of the world. What we really need to do is to change the culture of manhood that makes sexual violence against women normal and acceptable,” says Courtenay.
To break the chain, Courtenay says men need to be allies and support women who speak up, call out other men’s misconduct, and reject cultural expectations that equate masculinity with power over others. Powerful men, he adds, have the extra responsibility of being role models to their employees and leading by example. He also advises parents to be mindful of the cultural programming their children get through media messages and about dismissing poor behavior with refrains such as, “boys will be boys.”
No number of retweets and Facebook posts can guarantee progress, but #MeToo has at least created a community of people connected through their experiences and empowered in their outcry.
“This has been a very painful year,” says Maltbie. “But it’s the type of pain that we’re glad to go through—if on the other side there’s real change.”
Ousted in the Bay Area: Men Behaving Badly
Chef-owner Charlie Hallowell
The creator of Oakland’s popular Boot and Shoe Service, Penrose, and Pizzaiolo stepped aside from daily operations after 17 former employees reported experiencing sexual harassment and verbal abuse.
Federal Appeals Court Judge Alex Kozinski
The judge, who served on the San Francisco–based Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals for 32 years, retired after The Washington Post reported that 15 women accused him of harassment.
500 Startups CEO Dave McClure
After a New York Times report revealed that McClure hit on a job candidate, he proclaimed himself “a creep,” admitted making advances toward multiple women, and quit last summer.
Four Barrel Coffee founder Jeremy Tooker
The founder of the San Francisco coffee roastery resigned following a lawsuit brought by several former employees who alleged that he sexually assaulted and harassed women in the workplace.
Tosca Cafe co-owner Ken Friedman
Friedman resigned from running the seven eateries he co-owned—five in New York, one in Los Angeles, and the Italian café in San Francisco. He later apologized for accounts of groping, demanding sex, and asking for nude pictures from female employees.
Uber cofounder and CEO Travis Kalanick
Kalanick resigned last summer after a former Uber engineer published a blog post about the sexual harassment she endured as an employee and the rampant sexism in the company’s culture.
UC Berkeley Law School Dean Sujit Choudhry
Choudhry admitted to kissing, touching, and hugging his former assistant. Under a 2017 settlement, the university dropped all disciplinary action and kept Choudhry on as tenured faculty until his resignation the following year.
Legislating Change: California Bills Under Consideration
AB 403 Southern California Assemblywoman Melissa Melendez’s bill would protect state legislature staffers from being fired or retaliated against if they report wrongdoing. Versions of the bill have passed the assembly four times already but died in the senate.
AB 1761 Under this bill, hotels would be required to provide panic buttons for housekeepers and other employees who work alone in guest rooms. Seattle and Chicago have passed similar measures; the city of Long Beach rejected a panic button proposal late last year.
AB 1867 California companies with 50 or more employees would be required by this legislation to keep records of sexual harassment complaints for 10 years.
AB 1870 This bill would give harassment victims three years to file a charge through the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing,
extending the current one-year window. Victims must submit a claim before an external investigation, mediation, or lawsuit can begin.