This essay is the first in a series of Fortune op-eds by Anita Hill marking the fifth anniversary of the #MeToo movement.
In February of 2017, before there was a #MeToo movement, former Uber engineer Susan Fowler published a blog post about the gauntlet of barriers she faced at that company when she complained about being sexually harassed. The “Uber Blog” went viral, and what had been a muted effort to respond to the problem reverberated throughout Silicon Valley. Now, five years later, we should credit Fowler for showing employers how to respond to sexual harassment complaints.
The need for solutions is as urgent as ever. Charlotte Burrows, who chairs the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the federal agency in charge of enforcing the law prohibiting sexual harassment, put it bluntly: “It’s been clear for some time that the pandemic is not only a public health and economic crisis, but it has created a civil rights crisis for many American workers.” During lockdown, in-person sexual harassment and retaliation has continued, and online harassment has increased.
The Uber Blog offered companies three frames of reference for progress that remain salient: Clean up contaminated cultures; fix broken structures; and empower workers, victims, and bystanders. Fowler revealed how leaders, especially those in management who engaged in or ignored sexual harassment in their organization, shape culture. Second, she detailed how the lack of standards and transparency in human resource offices’ sexual harassment procedures failed victims miserably. And, finally, she exposed work colleagues’ complicity in bad behavior, and the role of bystanders who saw no option other than to go along with workplace harassment.
Fowler (who now goes by Susan Rigetti) would ultimately be praised as a whistleblower. She also became known as “that woman who was sexually harassed,” a label she dreaded. Months after Fowler’s Uber Blog went viral, #MeToo became a rallying cry. Many credited Fowler as central to a wave of revelations about sexual harassment and assault that subsequently filtered out of U.S. tech and entertainment industry workplaces. In locations from Silicon Valley to Hollywood to New York, complaints led to high-profile figures like television journalist Charlie Rose losing jobs; they also led to Harvey Weinstein facing criminal prosecution and ultimately being convicted for rape. And with #MeToo, public concern about the problem of sexual harassment in the workplace grew and deepened. But what didn’t happen was the “slippery slope” of false accusations that some warned about.
One important, but overlooked, takeaway from Fowler’s experience is what it tells us about the influence that outside forces have on an organization’s culture. One of Uber’s influential investors, Freada Kapor Klein, who had quietly worked to get the company to address its toxic culture, went public with her concerns. Ultimately, urged on by a group of major investors and advisers, Uber’s board forced CEO Travis Kalanick to resign. Along with charges that he had mishandled claims, Kalanick was also faulted for his personal conduct, including jokingly referring to the company as “Boob-er.” Under new leadership, the company began needed reform, which continues today. And more broadly, today shareholders and leaders in industries that do business with scandal-riddled firms are more likely to criticize those companies for how they handle complaints.
Our work at the Hollywood Commission has shown how an industry’s history and contemporary reputation sets the standards for what is an acceptable behavior within organizations that inhabit that industry. A commitment to cultural reform must be industrywide to be effective.
For example, Uber, Google, and more recently gaming’s Activision Blizzard, all sources of sexual harassment scandals, all exist in a tech ecosystem that is largely understood to have a sexual harassment problem. The same can be said for the entertainment industry, the epicenter of the #MeToo movement. Industrywide neglect (not to mention glorification) sends a message that workplace sexual harassment and gender violence are acceptable. Rather than try to relocate, some workers simply leave the industry altogether. Some organizations are implementing new rules and practices, but the larger ecosystem problem persists.
Even though the reverberations of #MeToo continue, surveys show only moderate change in the way companies handle complaints. In 2019, Have Her Back (HHB) Consulting reported on its post #MeToo research. The disappointing news was that 42% of women HHB polled said that their employers had implemented nothing to address harassment. Another 2019 study, reported in the Harvard Business Review, showed mixed results in business workplace culture and operations. In the wake of #MeToo, sexual coercion and unwanted sexual attention had declined. However, the authors of that same study concluded that “workplaces may be seeing a ‘backlash effect,’ or an increase in hostility toward women.” That same year, in a third study, 21% of men declared their reluctance to hire women because of #MeToo—though, fortunately, there is no evidence that they acted on that reluctance.
Three years after #MeToo rocked the entertainment industry, the Hollywood Commission polled nearly 10,000 entertainment industry workers to map industry progress in combating sexual harassment. Despite perceived progress, people reported feeling left out by the movement or that routine harassment continued. According to one worker, “It’s incredibly important to address issues like sexual assault or coercion in the workplace, but there hasn’t been much addressing of the smaller injustices that happen on a daily basis.”
Another telling revelation from the Hollywood Commission’s study was the lack of confidence workers had in the systems companies had in place for holding harassers accountable. Across all gender, race, and job classification categories, most workers didn’t believe that powerful men who harassed would be held accountable by their employers.
As the five-year anniversary of #MeToo approaches, workers expect and deserve safer workplaces and accountability. And with corporate commitment, providing these basic protections, though not easy, remains a possibility.
Anita Hill is chair of the Hollywood Commission, an organization that works to stop discrimination, harassment, and abuse in the entertainment industry. She is a professor of social policy, law, and women’s studies at Brandeis University and the author of Believing: Our Thirty-Year Journey to End Gender Violence.
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