A year after the movement began, #MeToo is making strides in Maryland laws and workplaces

Call it #AnnapolisToo.

This was the year that sexual harassment emerged from the shadows in the state capital, where legislators passed new laws to combat it even as they investigated allegations of misconduct against one of their own.

Neither the legislation nor the investigation might have happened, activists say, if not for the #MeToo movement that began sweeping the country one year ago. Following explosive sexual assault and harassment allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, thousands of women began sharing their own experiences under the now-familiar hashtag, leading to the firing or resignation of media, political and entertainment figures.

The movement made its way to the Supreme Court last month, when women accused nominee Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct when he was a student at Georgetown Prep in Montgomery County and later at Yale.

#MeToo has led to changes in lower-profile industries as well, in Maryland and elsewhere. Last month, for example, the Bethesda-based Marriott International was among a group of hotel chains to announce they would equip housekeepers, long considered among workers most vulnerable to sexual harassment and assault, with portable panic buttons to call for immediate help.

While the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says three out of four incidents of workplace harassment go unreported, activists say the movement is beginning to provide a certain safety in numbers.

“The presence of the broader #MeToo movement, and this moment in history, served as a bright light,” said Charly Carter, a leader of Baltimore Women United, among the groups that pressed lawmakers to pass anti-sexual-harassment measures at their session this year.

Business consultants say one of the effects of #MeToo is the understanding that how a company deals with sexual harassment speaks to its broader culture — something that at a time of low unemployment is important in recruiting and retaining talent.

Christine V. Walters, a Westminster-based consultant, also sees efforts to broaden the scope of how companies address sexual harassment. In the past, the focus was on the alleged wrongdoer and victim; now, co-workers are encouraged to be part of the solution.

“It’s like at the airport, ‘if you see something, say something,’ ” said Walters, who started her company FiveL in 1998. “We have to take care of each other.

“At the least, go to the co-worker [who was harassed] and ask, ‘Are you OK?’ Remind them what the company resources are,” she said. “Or go to the person you thought was offensive, and say, ‘I heard what you said.’ ”

But surveys have shown that employees often don’t report what they’ve witnessed because they don’t think management will do anything about it, Walters said.

“That’s a powerful message for employers,” she said. “Don’t be an employer who doesn’t do anything.”

Even if it’s long-delayed action: Kathleen Cahill, a Towson-based employment lawyer, said she had a client who felt that her company responded inadequately when she reported harassment years ago. After the man’s recent retirement, she wrote a letter seeking to revisit the issue with the company.

The company responded by creating a task force to address sexual harassment, and her client was named to it, Cahill said. Even though it was long past when the woman could have filed a claim, Cahill said, the woman felt vindicated.

“She wanted to speak out for her younger self,” Cahill said.

The new laws passed by the General Assembly include measures designed to increase transparency about sexual harassment: Starting in 2020, for example, companies with more than 50 employees will have to report to the state the number of sexual harassment complaints that they’ve settled and how often those charges were leveled against the same employee.

Additionally, the General Assembly passed measures directed at their own workplace, including one requiring harassment charges against legislators to be handled by an independent investigator, rather than fellow lawmakers.

As that law was making its way through committee hearings, amendments and votes, behind the scenes, a General Assembly ethics committee was investigating harassment and assault charges against one legislator, Baltimore Del. Curt Anderson, a Democrat.

In January, House Speaker Michael E. Busch had referred accusations against Anderson to the committee, citing a "pattern of conduct.” Last month, the committee released its findings, saying it couldn’t substantiate the most serious charge, of an alleged sexual assault in 2004, but found that he behaved and joked inappropriately with seven women. Anderson, who did not respond to requests for comment for this article, has previously denied the accusations, but the committee said he partially admitted to impropriety.

The committee ordered Anderson, who remains on the ballot in November, to take anti-harassment training, and Busch stripped the legislator of his positions as deputy majority whip and chair of a Judiciary subcommittee.

“Overall, the Speaker's decision to remove Delegate Anderson from his leadership positions will do more to change the culture in Annapolis than the discipline recommended by the Joint Ethics Committee,” said Lisae C. Jordan, executive director of the Maryland Coalition Against Sexual Assault.

The investigation highlights “the difference between confidentiality and secrecy,” Jordan said. The former is necessary for most victims to come forward, she said, but the latter shields details of the investigation that the public should know.

“It would have been helpful to have more details about the process and about the statements that were found to be inappropriate,” she said. “This would help the community learn more about what behavior is unacceptable and about what victims can expect if they report harassment.”

Still, Jordan is heartened by how the needle has moved on sexual harassment in recent years, even if there is still much work to be done. She lauds the leadership in Annapolis for appointing a Commission on Workplace Harassment — she is a member — that will issue a report before the next session.

“The question is, will this momentum continue?” Jordan said. “I’m optimistic.”

Advocates are focused on changing an increasingly common practice at companies that they say contributes to a lack of transparency — contractual agreements that require employees to resolve complaints privately through arbitration rather than publicly through the court system. That kind of secrecy, activists say, has helped the problem fester and protects serial harassers.

“There is no notice to other people in the workplace that there is someone who has been harassing multiple people,” said Margaret E. Johnson, a law professor and co-director of the Center on Applied Feminism at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Maryland legislators approved a measure earlier this year to prohibit company policies that require employees to “waive certain rights or remedies to a claim of sexual harassment,” although they acknowledged federal law may supersede that. A bipartisan bill to end the use of forced arbitration for sexual harassment complaints is pending in Congress. But already, some companies, including giants like Microsoft, have eliminated it on their own.

Baltimore-based Under Armour does not require harassment complaints to go to arbitration. It requires regular training on the issue and encourages reporting of incidents through company channels or an anonymous hotline — something consultants say more businesses are offering.

All employees in Maryland have had the option of calling an employee hotline run by the Women’s Law Center of Maryland since 2006. In the most recent fiscal year, the center’s volunteer lawyers assisted 433 callers, of whom 28 percent reported sexual discrimination or harassment, said executive director Michelle Daugherty Siri.

About two-thirds had incomes below $40,000, an under-represented group in media coverage of sexual harassment this past year, with its focus on actresses and TV personalities.

Seeing those women come forward, Siri said, can serve to encourage women with much lower profiles and power that they too can speak up and be believed.

“Hopefully, the result of #MeToo, with the influx of people being really vocal, is that people see what is happening in their own workplaces,” she said. “We just have to keep at it, and we can’t be discouraged.

“Women are resilient,” she said. “That’s what we do.”

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