Responding to Sexual Abuse in the Workplace

Responding to Sexual Abuse in the Workplace


In October 2017, the news reports of abuse by American film producer, Harvey Weinstein generated a resurgence of the #MeToo movement. The mainstream media covered many stories for months. Many powerful men found their worlds crashing down around them, losing their high-paid, high-profile jobs to sexual abuse claims. It seems that women felt relieved and confident enough, finally, to come forward with reports of their past or current situations at work.

Why did the movement start? What were its biggest effects? Why does it seem that the subject heats up, then goes quiet again?

The “me too” phrase was coined in 2006 by Tarana Burke through her nonprofit, Just Be, Inc., which sought to assist survivors of sexual violence, especially women of color. Burke is widely credited as the founder of the movement. It took another 11 years until “me too” gained national attention.

In 2017, actress Alyssa Milano tweeted, “If you’ve been sexually harassed or sexually assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet,” creating a hashtag and galvanizing the #MeToo movement. Within hours, tens of thousands of women replied to her call for action. Facebook reported more than 12 million reactions connected to #MeToo. Milano had not been aware of Burke’s organization or that the term was created by Burke. She quickly credited Burke for the phrase. The two then began to appear publicly as faces of the new movement.

In 2020, Weinstein was found guilty and convicted of rape and sexual assault of two women, handcuffed, and led to prison. The move was hailed as a landmark moment—a long-overdue reckoning for the man many considered the biggest perpetrator and increased awareness of the #MeToo movement.

The so-called Weinstein Effect had already generated Time’s Up; in January 2018 more than 300 women in entertainment said, “enough is enough” and launched a legal defense fund to help survivors of sexual harassment and retaliation. It was especially aimed at helping low-income women and people of color achieve justice. However, five years later, the organization announced it would cease operations by the end of January 2023. The organization’s management seems to have made some political missteps during the 2020-2021 timeframe.

The #MeToo movement did not have much success at the federal level, although it did produce a major piece of legislation, The Ending Forced Arbitration of Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment Act of 2021.

Now, in 2023, the #MeToo movement has gone quiet. Can we expect there will some day be another round of media attention on another high-profile case? What about all the instances of abuse that still happen every day at work?

Words do matter. If women and men learn to communicate clearly, perhaps the workplace will steer clear of future sexual harassment issues. Women must continue to manage awkward situations using humor or directness in a timely and respectful manner.

The Case of Sue, Healthcare Lobbyist

Sue worked in Washington, D.C., as a lobbyist for a healthcare company. She was asked to join a large dinner group at a popular restaurant and found herself to be the only woman. She was seated next to a senator whom she knew and respected. However, as she was talking with him, he kept his eyes on her chest. Sue was well-endowed and self-conscious about it. Feeling very uncomfortable, she stopped talking and pointed at her mouth, saying, “The sound is coming from here.” Then pointing to her breasts, she said, “These haven’t learned to talk yet but when they do, I will call you.” The senator looked up and was completely red-faced. Many of the other men heard Sue’s comments and within short order they all laughed.

Sue maintained a longstanding working relationship with the senator, and he never stared at her chest again. Saying something and pointing out something that makes you feel icky is the perfect way to stop behavior that is unacceptable.

High-profile cases such as that of Harvey Weinstein and scads of other celebrities have brought the conversation from behind closed doors to center stage. Has it brought about systemic change? Yes. Is more needed? Absolutely. It takes courage to speak up, considering the consequences. Which is why we need to make is safer for women to tell their stories.

The Story of Charlene, Small-Business Insurance Salesperson

Charlene was single and just starting her career. After her company’s national sales meeting, everyone went out to a bar to socialize and have a few laughs. Most attendees were traveling from out of town and staying in hotels. Sam, a married salesman for the company, who was based in England, offered Charlene a ride back to her hotel. When they got into the car Sam started to molest her. She told him no, that it wasn’t a good thing—first, because they worked together and second, because he was a married man. Charlene began to cry when he didn’t stop. Finally, he left her alone. She truly didn’t know what else to do that night, as she was so upset and surprised. She did tell her boss about the situation, and the response was, “Oh, we know he is a flirt.” The kicker—Sam sold employment practices liability insurance, which covers sexual harassment claims!

We often say, never cry at work. In this case, a sexual assault situation, it was a good strategy with a good outcome for Charlene. Do you think Sam understands what type of insurance he sells?

Deborah Tuerkheimer, author of Credible: Why We Doubt Accusers and Protect Abusers, says, “The world won’t be the same as before #MeToo. It can’t be. There was a shift and a sea change. And even though progress isn’t linear, the stories cannot be put back. There’s something that happened that changed the course of our response to abuse and misconduct,” And, she added, “that, I think, is hopeful.”


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