The Movement #MeToo sparked surge in awareness about sexual harassment

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One year ago today (Oct. 5), a story in the New York Times sparked a global conversation about sexual harassment in the workplace. But in the year since film producer Harvey Weinstein was exposed, has anything at work really changed?

Sure, a few prominent men like Lee Moonves and Matt Lauer have lost their jobs, but Bill Cosby is the only celebrity thus far headed to jail, and his legal troubles predate the #MeToo movement.

Laws have passed in California and New York to require company harassment training and to make it easier to report abuse, but there have also been some unintended consequences that have made it more difficult for women to advance in their career.

A Pew Research Center study from earlier this year found 66% of adults 65 and older believe it’s now harder for men to navigate workplace interactions.

“One troubling trend is executives going as far as to not invite female colleagues on business trips, to evening networking events or into their inner circles to avoid any situation that could be perceived incorrectly,” says Johnny C. Taylor, the president of the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

In SHRM’s latest poll on workplace harassment, one in three executives claimed to have changed their behavior in the wake of the #MeToo movement.

Some made it easier for HR to investigate sexual assault allegations without fear of retaliation; others hired external consultants to review their company’s office culture.

But the SHRM report also found that more than a third of American workers believe their workplace fosters sexual harassment.

“The fact that some workplace cultures still foster sexual harassment says there is more work to be done,” says Taylor.

Culture change takes time, but the hashtag has catalyzed some quantifiable change. 

The number of workplace sexual harassment allegations has increased dramatically since the movement went viral last October.

The US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission says that sexual harassment charges have risen by more than 12% in the past 12 months. So far in 2018, the agency has filed 41 sexual harassment cases, a 50% increase over 2017.

Now there’s evidence that the #MeToo movement sparked more than mere conversation about sexual abuse in the United States.

Google searches for information about sexual harassment and assault—as well as reporting or preventing such behavior—spiked in the months after actress Alyssa Milano brought the #MeToo movement fresh attention in October 2017, a study published online Dec. 21 in JAMA Internal Medicine found.

“Our study reveals that even months after the beginning of #MeToo, millions more than otherwise expected are seeking out help for sexual violence online,” said senior researcher John Ayers, an associate adjunct professor with the University of California, San Diego. “Revealing this record-setting and sustained engagement is a call to action for the nation.”

Searches related to sexual harassment and assault were 51 percent higher than expected between Oct. 15, 2017 and June 15, 2018, Ayers and his colleagues found.

On the afternoon of Oct. 15, 2017, Milano responded to public accusations of sexual harassment and assault against film producer Harvey Weinstein with a tweet sent to her followers:

“If you’ve been sexually harassed or assaulted write ‘me too’ as a reply to this tweet.”

Searches related to reporting sexual assault and preventive training on sexual harassment were 30 percent higher during that same period, researchers found.

“#MeToo is not the first movement to empower victims of sexual violence, but what is unique compared to past movements is #MeToo’s staying power,” Ayers said.

“Eight months since the initiation of #MeToo, millions more than expected are seeking out help for sexual violence online.

#MeToo’s sustainability, and our study alerting leaders to this, could yield major wins for the nation’s public health.”

These findings verify that #MeToo made a real difference in terms of raising awareness and prompting action, said Karestan Koenen, a professor of psychiatric epidemiology with the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

“Anecdotally, we’ve known it’s made a difference,” Koenen said. “I feel like this is some of the first real data we have that these aren’t just anecdotes, that this movement is making a huge difference.”

Sharyn Tejani, director of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, has been on the receiving end of those Google searches.

The National Women’s Law Center created the defense fund in January 2018, in the wake of #MeToo.

“Since then, over 3,800 people have reached out to us seeking assistance for workplace sexual harassment,” Tejani said.

“People send us requests for assistance online, and so it does seem like people are using online tools. We’ve received many more requests for assistance than we ever thought we would receive.”

Koenen found the searches related to reporting or preventing sexual harassment to be most promising.

“As a trauma psychologist, I know sharing one’s sexual assault experiences can be very validating and healing for people, but beyond that, what we want to see is change,” she said.

“That’s the most exciting finding to me, because it’s going beyond all of us sharing this experience. Maybe people are taking action that will really result in change.”

The response to the #MeToo movement has revealed a huge public health problem in the United States that must be addressed, Ayers said.

“Survivors face serious health consequences, including physical injury, PTSD symptoms and emotional trauma,” Ayers said.

“Yet public investments in preventing and responding to sexual violence is disproportionately small compared with other health issues. With millions more than ever voicing their needs, our nation’s leaders should respond by investing in enhanced prevention training and improving resources for survivors.”

More information: Theodore L. Caputi et al. Internet Searches for Sexual Harassment and Assault, Reporting, and Training Since the #MeToo Movement, JAMA Internal Medicine (2018). DOI: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2018.5094 

Journal reference: JAMA Internal Medicine

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