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Blog / #MeToo and the Law: two years on

11 July 2019

Two years ago, two little words exploded on phones, computers and industries across the world, and gave a voice to millions of people rendered voiceless by an unsympathetic hierarchy.

One year ago, this very blog covered how this event has affected employment law. People put their careers on the line to expose the dark truth behind some of the most powerful people on the planet; but how much has been done about it?

The good: changes across the legal world

Sexual harassment in the workplace no longer dominates the news or Lexology’s Employment and Labour hub; the world and employment law appear to be adjusting to a post-#MeToo era.

The state of New York has expanded protections for its employees against harassment; Connecticut is introducing a ‘Time’s Up’ act this October (with Oregon having recently signed a similar act to be introduced in 2020); and the UK government is consulting on ways to control the abuse of non-disclosure agreements.

In Asia, some Indian states are enforcing new requirements for the registration of sexual harassment-focused internal committees in almost all businesses and Hong Kong aims to implement a bill of reforms concerning discrimination in 2019.

An improvement in the attitude towards workplace sexual harassment training is evident from articles such as Rubin Thomlinson LLP’s guide to believing women while remaining neutral, which have become more and more prevalent, particularly on Lexology.

These reforms, laws and guides all demonstrate a definite move in attention towards avoiding the issues the #MeToo movement highlighted on a worldwide scale in 2017 – this shift towards a safer workplace shows the beginnings of a zeitgeist in workplace culture.

The good-bad: a refreshing loss

A key example of the substantial but slow swing towards supporting the human rights of the harassed in the wake of #MeToo is the Wendy Dent defamation case in Australia. In the case Dent was sued for defamation by her harasser (who was claiming that she was fabricating the event, which he then lost, due to the court’s lack of belief that she would have lied.

The shift towards believing victims and no longer protecting powerful, previously untouchable perpetrators shows a real change on both a cultural level and – most of the time – a legal one.

The bad-good: what motivates recent legal changes – and do they make a difference?

An issue concerning a lot of recent changes is the priorities behind them; the aims of many reforms and new approaches in the wake of #MeToo tend to be avoiding liability, bad publicity and complaints.

Of course, a key priority of any business is inevitably going to be taking care of financial and publicity-related issues, but in the case of harassment or discrimination (which is often mentioned less than it should be, perhaps due to the level of publicity associated with the #MeToo movement) focus could be placed more on creating a safer working environment, rather than preventing lawsuits.

These policy reforms and guides still mean well and come from a good place; the fact that they exist at all is a positive sign. Whatever the real priorities behind them, a meaningful difference is still being made.

The bad: two steps forward, one step back

The issue with a lot of legislation relating to human rights, particularly in the wake of #MeToo, is the fact that laws often change without the mindsets behind them changing – this results in hypocrisy and limited real-world change.

A clear example of this is in Alabama – following May 2019’s controversial abortion bill, an equal pay act was passed in June. Although legislation such as this equal pay act is obviously a huge and important step forward, the mindset shared by many in Alabama has evidently not changed much, as the abortion bill shows.

Discrimination is also often interlinked with issues of sexual harassment; this article concerning two university staff members in Canada highlights the hypocrisy – a gay academic adviser who engaged in consensual relationships with students (whom he did not advise or interact with professionally) was fired, while a male professor sexually harassing multiple female students he taught remained at his job and his only punishment was three months’ suspension without pay (and six months with pay).

Cases such as this – and the conflicting legislation in Alabama – show that the views of those in power can often play a substantial role in how human rights are upheld, and rather than throwing reforms, unenforced laws and ineffectively taught seminars at the most publicised problems of the day, the issue can only truly be resolved at an individual, ideological level – through mutual understanding, education and empathy.

The future: what can be done moving forward?

Even though it might be slow, progress is being made. Rome was not built in a day – and Rome was hardly the place to expect a safe working environment. The #MeToo movement will continue to affect the world in ways yet unseen, for years to come.

The process of change will likely be drawn out and difficult, but articles such as that by Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP on more effective teaching practices and Rubin Thomlinson LLP on why embracing the movement makes good business sense (as well as their investigative guide mentioned above) show that industries are capable of heading in the right direction and focusing on their employees, and are beginning to do so.

With cases like Wendy Dent’s and reforms like those introduced in New York, Connecticut, Oregon, India, Hong Kong and (potentially) the United Kingdom, it is clear that #MeToo has made a significant and lasting difference.

If you are interested in following the effects of the #MeToo movement on the legal and employment fields, subscribe to Lexology’s Employment and Labour hub.