Has the #MeToo Movement Actually Changed Sexual Harassment Policies?

While most people likely believe that the “Me Too” movement is something that emerged over the last few years, it’s a movement that was actually started in 2006 by a woman named Tarana Burke, a survivor of sexual assault. The small flame she ignited was fanned and became an inferno in 2017—11 years later—fueled by allegations of sexual assault leveled against media mogul Harvey Weinstein. It was then furthered by the emergence of a hashtag (#MeToo) that took the Twitterverse by storm. The movement even made the cover of Time in December 2017 when the “silence breakers” were named as “Person of the Year” after a number of other women—and men—stepped forward to level charges of harassment against such prominent names as Kevin Spacey, Louis C.K., Garrison Keillor, and Al Franken. 

But, aside from raising awareness of sexual harassment and prompting a litany of charges leveled against a growing number of accused harassers, has the movement actually had an impact in terms of diminishing sexual harassment? Ongoing reports of new claims being made against a growing number of famous, not-so-famous, and infamous perpetrators would suggest that it hasn’t. And yet, a couple of important factors might suggest that the movement is pushing American sexual harassment prevention training policies in the right direction.  

Awareness is the First Step in Sexual Harassment Prevention

Problems can’t be addressed unless they’ve been acknowledged. One important thing that the #MeToo movement has done is make it abundantly clear that we have a sexual harassment problem. We live and work in an environment where harassment has become far too prevalent. And where, as emerging media reports are confirming, instances of sexual harassment in the workplace have been ignored and pushed aside to protect powerful perpetrators and organizations’ bottom lines. Matt Lauer is one example of this as reports about NBC’s long-term knowledge of his, and others’, behaviors have come to light

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That awareness has led to more open discussions about sexual harassment in the workplace—and other settings—and has prompted much movement in HR circles to review and update sexual harassment policies, ramp up communication and training efforts, and take prompt action when incidents of sexual harassment are reported.

Awareness has also prompted a growing number of new workplace harassment laws in states like California and others.

Rising Sexual Harassment Claims May Actually Indicate Progress

Despite the fact that sexual harassment claims have been on the rise since the #MeToo movement has gained momentum, these numbers may not indicate a growing problem, but a positive impact on minimizing incidents of harassment. Why? Because as other industries have experienced, tackling a problem and raising awareness around it leads initially to an increase in reporting of such incidents and not necessarily an actual increase in the incidents themselves.

Healthcare is a good example of this. When the Institute of Medicine (IoM) released its To Err is Human report bringing light to the significant quality gap and high number of medical errors in the industry, hospitals around the country took action. Those actions included communication, training, and the creation of a “just culture” approach to managing errors by encouraging reporting. Medication errors were an initial area of focus and, as these practices were implemented, hospitals saw (and expected) an increase in the number of errors reported.  

More Work Needed to Change Sexual Harassment Policies

That may be what we’re seeing today with the ongoing onslaught of sexual harassment claims. Whether or not the incidents themselves are on the rise is tougher to determine. In either case, though, continued attention to this issue and continued action to create respectful cultures are important steps to ultimately lead to better sexual harassment policies and prevention.

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