Over the past 10 years, sexism has been constant. it is simply a view that women are inferior to men and should play subordinate roles at work and in the home. In the workplace, the expression of sexist resentment of women’s presence has becoming more intense as economic pressures and perceived competition for scarce positions of power and influence have grown.
In an effort to shed light on the culture of sexism, abuse and harassment and how it is being affected by the #MeToo movement, we were lucky enough to sit down with Katz, Marshall & Banks attorney Carolyn Wheeler, who has vast experiencing representing women who have asserted claims against judges. According to Wheeler, the culture has grown more tolerant of crude language and open discussion of sexual content so these themes are more pervasive in the forms of harassment of women that are common today.
“The #MeToo movement has brought the depth, breadth and perniciousness of sexist hostility to women into public consciousness,” she explained. “While the harassers we have heard about have been accused of demanding or expecting sexual favors from women, what this demonstrates is their lack of respect for women as human beings.”
Sexual abuse and harassment allegations is not more rampant, per Wheeler, but the current broad proliferation of stories of abuse demonstrates the power of feeling the support of a group and realizing you are not alone and that you did nothing to deserve or provoke the treatment you received.
Are women just becoming brave enough to step forward now versus years ago? Wheeler doesn’t know that courage was lacking in the past. In fact, consider what happened when Anita Hill testified–whether she was believed or not, the whole world saw that her allegations did not lead to punishment of her harasser. In general, women have always known that they likely would not be believed; that it would be embarrassing to discuss what happened; and above all that they would suffer extreme retaliation, often the end of their career aspirations.
If a woman reported a man at work for sexual harassment 20 years ago, would she have lost her job?
“The reality then and now is that if a woman complains about a man in a position of greater power or influence, nothing will be done to him and she will be transferred, marginalized and even fired. Retaliation has always been a real and legitimate concern,” she explained.
According to Wheeler, if a woman is willing to follow through, the legal consequences for employers who ignore complaints of harassment can be extreme. Although federal law caps the damages at $300,000, under many state laws there are no limitations, and juries have awarded substantial verdicts in egregious cases. In addition, that cap applies to each individual claim, so in cases of tolerance of serial harassers the economic costs could multiply exponentially.
So, how can women protect themselves? According to Wheeler, by complaining internally and to federal and state agencies and by speaking up to other women in their workplaces to get the support and reassurance that they are not alone. She added, “If someone fears retaliation she may want to get legal representation to navigate the situation.”
Amanda G. Ciccatelli is a Freelance Journalist for Corporate Counsel and InsideCounsel, where she covers intellectual property, legal technology, patent litigation, cybersecurity, innovation, and more.