Last year, we saw a number of cultural changes propelled by the #MeToo movement. In the year since the sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein surfaced, more than 200 men accused of sexual misconduct have lost their jobs; many of their replacements were women. Hollywood heavyweights launched Time’s Up at the start of 2018, to draw attention to women who face sexual misconduct in blue-collar workplaces and offer them financial support through a legal defense fund; the initiative has already raised $22 million and pledged to fund 51 cases. The advocacy group RAINN has seen a 30% jump in calls to its sexual assault hotline since late 2017—and the day after Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee was its busiest in more than two decades.
As Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey—the New York Times reporters behind the Weinstein investigation—noted recently, the reckoning continues to unfold and gather nuance. “Now, even after a year of painful memories, cascades of firings, widespread outrage, criticism from the president, and a fight over a Supreme Court seat,” they wrote, “we have only one firm prediction: This discussion over harassment and assault has no end in sight.” Here are some of the ways that discussion may bring about change in 2019.
The tech industry will protect more vulnerable workers
The tech industry had a major #MeToo moment in fall 2018, when more than 20,000 Google employees around the world staged a walkout to protest the company’s payouts to executives accused of sexual harassment. The walkout organizers assembled a list of demands that stretched beyond issues of sexual misconduct and included a request to end Google’s policy of forced private arbitration in cases of sexual harassment. The week after the walkout, Google decided to scrap its forced arbitration policy for sexual harassment claims. Prominent tech companies like Facebook and Airbnb followed suit, while the likes of Apple and Uber had previously taken action.
Vaya Consulting CEO Nicole Sanchez, who helps tech companies diversify their workforces, says that the change will encourage other smaller tech outfits to do the same. “Once some of the bigger companies change their policies like that, it does take a while for it to trickle out to the rest of Silicon Valley, in part because the Googles and Facebooks of the world can take the financial risk,” she says. “It will take a while for it to hit startups and mid-sized companies. But I still think it means good things to come for people at all companies.”
While ending forced arbitration is a big step in the right direction, it still largely protects a more privileged class of tech workers. “The concern I have is that it’s still very much about a class of workers that is vulnerable but isn’t the most vulnerable in tech,” she says. Contract workers, who are a key part of the tech workforce, and the workers who support the industry—the janitorial staff at their offices, for example—have not necessarily been a part of the conversation. “Even when we talk about pay equity for women, generally the movement has not adequately talked about and pushed forward an agenda around the lowest-paid women in the workforce,” she says.
In 2019, Sanchez hopes there will be more solidarity between the different classes of tech employees and more of “an alliance of women from all backgrounds” to push for protections for women who are most susceptible to workplace abuses. The organizers of the Google walkout have already called for changes to contractors’ pay and extending them the same benefits and protections. (Though Google dropped its forced arbitration policy, it did not extend to contractors and only applied to sexual harassment claims.) Sanchez also believes that until non-disclosure agreements stop conflating the personal—the “how I was treated at the company” portion—with the part that fairly protects a company’s intellectual property, many workers will remain vulnerable. “Until it goes, there is not a lot of incentive for companies to change their culture,” she says. “As long as you know you can pay for it to go away, it will persist.”
Service industries may move beyond shifting culture
One thing gives Sanchez hope. As the tech industry (slowly) diversifies, she sees more people shifting their focus to those more vulnerable workers. “If you take my background for example, I’m Latina and my parents were service workers,” Sanchez says. “I now am able to bring the conversation about humanizing the janitorial staff into an executive boardroom.” She hopes 2019 will bring more open communication with service workers and, as such, tangible protections for them.
While the last year or so has seen a handful of improvements in working culture for women across the restaurant and hospitality industries, progress has been slow—or tamped down by a resistance to more sweeping changes or consequences for abusers. The One Fair Wage campaign, which seeks to eliminate the sub-minimum wage for restaurant workers, claimed a victory in New York in 2017 but met with pushback in Washington, D.C. and Michigan despite being voted into law. (One Fair Wage had previously been adopted by eight states.) Many restaurant owners have shifted their stance on restaurant culture, rather than accepting sexual misconduct in the workplace as routine or par for the course; some women restaurateurs have made a concerted effort to offer more flexibility in scheduling for working moms and hire inclusively. At the same time, however, male restaurateurs accused of sexual misconduct are angling for a comeback—and some restaurant workers are forced to work for a sullied restaurateur so they can stay employed.
In the hotel industry, the most popular preventive measure for the sexual harassment of workers and housekeepers is a panic button, which have slowly been adopted by hotels across the U.S. through company policies and legislation. Unlike in other industries, however, hotels have refused to penalize guests accused of misconduct, in the interest of safeguarding their guests’ right to “due process.”
This is, of course, some form of the debate countless people have had over the last year, over sexual misconduct and the court of public opinion. But as more hotels standardize the panic button—in late 2018, the Hilton, Hyatt, Marriott, and 14 other chains pledged to roll out the device in all their hotels by 2020—they may find that empowering hotel workers isn’t enough to change workplace culture or the power dynamic embedded in their interactions with hotel guests.
California workplaces could become friendlier for women
As the epicenter of both Hollywood and the tech industry, California is indeed making moves to better shield employees from workplace abuses. California governor Jerry Brown has signed into law multiple bills that go into effect in 2019, many of which should curb the power of nondisclosure agreements. One of those bills outlaws nondisclosure clauses in settlements that involve sexual misconduct or discrimination; in other words, anyone who settles cannot be forced to remain silent about the abuses they faced. That includes barring any fines that might prevent women from testifying, as was the case for McKayla Maroney, one of the gymnasts who was sexually abused by Larry Nassar. Another bill will prevent companies from forcing employees to sign away their legal right to disclose sexual harassment in the workplace as a term of employment or in exchange for a raise or promotion.
But some people worry that the new laws could make it more difficult for victims of sexual misconduct to procure settlements. Without the promise of confidentiality, some abusers may be less willing to settle or negotiate. “Yeah, the law passed and the public has a right to know, but some of this is not going to be positive for victims,” famed attorney Gloria Allred told the Los Angeles Times recently. A confidential settlement can benefit both parties, if a victim wants to avoid a drawn-out, expensive lawsuit and retain anonymity during the settlement proceedings.
Another bill passed in California attempts to address the paltry number of women on corporate boards, by requiring that all publicly traded companies instate at least one woman on their board by the end of 2019 (and three by 2021). Though well-intentioned, this bill could also prove complicated in practice: Since the bill more or less sets a quota, it could be challenged on a legal basis. It also may not apply to many companies if they are not entirely based in California, which means it may not amount to meaningful change. When it comes to high-profile companies that might be affected, for example, only Apple would be required to change its board makeup by 2021.
The changes to California law make for some of the most sweeping policies in the U.S. around sexual harassment. But they also illustrate how complex it can be to offer legal support to victims of sexual discrimination and harassment, or even to address the root of the problem—a dearth of female leadership in the higher ranks and overall gender equity.