A single tweet on Sunday night started what turned out to be monumental week in women’s fight for safety and respect in the workplace.
Actress Alyssa Milano used Twitter to launch a social media campaign to draw attention to the epidemic of sexual harassment and assault, as alarming accusations of sexual misconduct against legendary Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein continued to pile up. “If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet,” she tweeted, relying on the “#MeToo” battle cry first taken up by rape and trauma victim advocate Tarana Burke a decade ago. Doing so, Milano argued, would “give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.”
Women answered Milano’s call by the millions. In a matter of 48 hours, Twitter users posted the “me too” hashtag one million times. Less than 24 hours after Milano’s message, there were 12 million posts, comments, and reactions to the campaign on Facebook. At one point, the social media platform reported that 45% of its user base in the U.S. had friends who posted about “#MeToo.”
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As women’s roar reverberated around the Internet, some men rallied in support with their own tagline of “how I will change,” as in: “#HowIWillChange means sacrificing some of my own social capital so that male-centric spaces in which I am safe are also safe for women.”
The incredible viral nature of both campaigns and the candid, heartbreaking stories of abuse they brought forth prompted figures like former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson and media mogul Oprah Winfrey to christen recent events a “tipping point” and a “watershed moment.” Finally, the ugly side women’s workplace existence was on open, graphic display.
But those monikers denote a change, a disruption in a pattern, not just an awareness that it exists. So the obvious question becomes what actions—at the individual, corporate, or legislative level—need to come next in order to go beyond simply recognizing the problem of sexual harassment and assault in the workplace, and actually begin to reduce its prevalence. How can such a singular moment become a productive movement?
Fortune posed this query to experts in the field. Here’s what they said:
1. Tarana Burke, the originator of the Me Too movement:
“[O]ne actionable step is for folks to be accountable—not just the perpetrator but the bystander. Men and women who see harassment in action should one, let the victim know they are supported (this doesn’t have to be a big grandiose gesture but some show of support), and two, don’t tolerate it. Full stop.”
2. Shaunna Thomas, co-founder and co-executive director of women’s advocacy group Director of UltraViolet, called for more Harvey Weinstein-esque moments:
“The actionable next step is continuing to expose and hold accountable more Harvey Weinsteins in different industries—and that includes men speaking out against other men, not just survivors of harassment and assault. As we see more accountability, more women will feel comfortable coming forward and there will be a shift of power away from men who have been getting away with harassment for so long with impunity. Instead of instances of assault and harassment being enabled and buried in silence, there will be consequences and that will change future actions.”
3. Elizabeth Owens Bille, general counsel of the Society for Human Resource Management, cited the need for “strong, comprehensive anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies and training” in employment settings, but said that alone is not enough: organizational leaders must actively embody a company’s commitment to combatting harassment. That requires…
“that concerns raised by employees—whatever those concerns may be—will be addressed objectively, that appropriate steps will be taken whenever a concern is reported (even if that means that no disciplinary action is warranted, given the particular circumstances), and that the organization has zero tolerance for unlawful retaliation. This culture of respect and reporting not only would help prevent full-blown harassment, but it also would likely prevent the precursors to harassment—incivility and disrespect.”
4. Meanwhile, Janine Yancey, founder and CEO of Emtrain, which offers compliance training courses, says corporations shouldn’t oversee their own employees’ complaints of unwanted sexual advances. After all, “internal advisors are there to protect the company,” she says. Rather, she sees the need for an outside, public website “that moves beyond the type of hotlines that the employers control currently,” where workers can “anonymously report workplace incidents to a neutral third-party with subject matter expertise who could identify red flag issues and bring them to the employer for action.” It would serve as a middle ground between employees staying quiet about such complaints and employees “going nuclear”—as Yancey puts it—with a legal action or public shaming on the Internet or through news channels that automatically puts companies on the defense.
5. Lauren Leader-Chivée, co-founder and CEO of All In Together—a national women’s group advocating for women’s political, civic and professional leadership—had a similar recommendation to take the adjudication of sexual harassment claims out of the hands of employers. In addition to calling on businesses to end the secrecy surrounding workplace harassment settlements, she wants them to:
“appoint an outside, independent person to investigate claims of harassment so it’s outside the chain of corporate command. Every woman who wrote #MeToo should ask their employer to consider changes like these to their policies on this issue.”
6. Leigh Gilmore, a women’s and gender studies professor at Wellesley College, and author of Tainted Witness: Why We Doubt What Women Say About Their Lives, says society must “recognize the chronic, every day quality of sexual abuse in women’s lives as a workplace issue and a public health issue.” One way for employers to do that?
“When work places do health and safety surveys, they must collect data about sexual harassment and abuse. They can then assess the level of the problem—even when women do not feel safe to speak out—and take action.”
7. Interestingly enough, the United States’ Equal Employment Opportunity Commission took on this question in a report published in June of last year—well before the recent string of sexual harassment scandals. It contained the counter-intuitive suggestion that managers be rewarded—at least initially—for an increase in sexual harassment complaints in their divisions since such an uptick would indicate that they were fostering environments in which employees trusted the system.