The Golden Globe Awards this Sunday put the #MeToo movement in the spotlight. Many actresses wore black to express to solidarity, and a number of them brought important activists as their dates. Millions were raised for a legal defense fund to help women fight sexual harassment and abuse.
This is good news for women around the country. The #MeToo movement has shown that women who have been harassed in the workplace are far from alone, and that even powerful men can be brought down for their misdeeds. It has demonstrated that consumers, companies and voters do not want to bolster misbehaving men. Increased funding for legal organizations will not only help women bring cases but also improve case law through impact litigation.
Yet for this moment to represent a permanent shift rather than a large aberration, whistleblower laws and policies protecting those who disclose inappropriate sexual behavior by colleagues and bosses must be significantly strengthened. It is notable that many women who have come forward to report misconduct (or much worse) have themselves been prominent figures: actresses and singers like Taylor Swift, Ashley Judd, Rose McGowan and Alyssa Milano, and media personalities like Megyn Kelly and Wendy Walsh all feature among the “Silence Breakers” who were named person of the year by Time magazine. Salma Hayek's recent article describing predatory and revolting behavior toward her by film mogul Harvey Weinstein catapulted to the most read article on the New York Times site.
These women and others — including television host Leeann Tweeden and author Heidi Bond, who writes under the name Courtney Milan — have all shown impressive courage in coming forward. But because they already had a platform because of their high profiles, their stories were granted additional credence and credibility that everyday women often do not benefit from. For women with smaller microphones, the barriers to achieve justice are harder to scale.
The Silence Breakers article, to its credit, features ordinary faces alongside celebrity glamour. There are two women featured anonymously: a hospital worker and a former executive assistant. The costs of coming forward with their names attached were simply too high for these women.
Take the case of the anonymous whistleblower whose experiences led to the firing of Today show host Matt Lauer. Her attorney says she lives in “constant fear that people are going to track her down and figure out who she is.” He adds that “there’s a hunt underway to figure out who she is and I think that’s going to have a chilling effect on other women who are going to come forward and tell their stories.”
Enhancing and ensuring whistleblower protections are important next steps for the #MeToo movement. Congress should pass ironclad laws strengthening anti-retaliation provisions against those who report harassment and should change overly strict time limits on reporting harassment either internally or to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Personnel in important oversight roles and judges ruling on sexual harassment cases should understand the damaging effects of harassment in the workplace.
Unfortunately, these steps are not being taken. Congress has been more concerned about repealing the estate tax for multimillionaires than guaranteeing workplace whistleblowers core protections. The president’s pick to lead the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division has devoted his career to fighting discrimination claims. Damien Schiff, a nominee to the Court of Federal Claims, brought suit to weaken gender discrimination protections under Title IX. A number of judges on President Donald Trump's list of potential Supreme Court nominees have issued concerning decisions about sexual harassment law and troubling opinions in whistleblower cases. Only 19 percent of President Trump’s judicial nominees have been women, which would be the lowest rate since George H.W Bush.
Certainly, more robust whistleblower protections will not be a panacea for this particular societal ill. Cultural change is essential. But if more individuals had had total certainty that they could report misconduct without fear of losing their jobs or facing retaliation, then it is likely the lid would have blown off some recent scandals long before 2017. Even more importantly, it is probable that some predators would have been stopped before they could harass or assault other people.
Brave whistleblowers have powered the #MeToo movement — career consequences and harsh backlash be damned. To build on this moment, we must mold our laws so that the sexual misconduct whistleblowers of tomorrow have less to fear and more to gain from coming forward.
Aaron Jordan is a lawyer. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.