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Reflections on the #MeToo movement

Posted on 17 October 2022

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The #MeToo movement has shone a global spotlight on the issue of workplace sexual harassment and discrimination. The movement started in 2006, although the events involving Harvey Weinstein in 2017 brought it swiftly to global attention. We set out below a timeline of the key #MeToo developments in the five years since then, together with our reflections on some of the ways the movement is continuing to influence UK employment law.

Over the next few days, we will also update and re-publish our response to significant events and conclude with a podcast by some of our employment lawyers, including Joanna Blackburn, who gave evidence to the Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee (WESC) Report in 2018, on their perceptions of how the views on sexual harassment from an employer and employee perspective have changed over the last five years.

Timeline

2006: The beginning of "Me Too"

The phrase 'me too' was first used in 2006 by sexual assault survivor and activist, Tarana Burke. She aimed to empower people who had suffered sexual harassment or assault by letting them know that they were not alone, and visibly demonstrating how many have experienced sexual assault and harassment.

Tarana Burke's foundation: Just Be Inc.

Founded in 2006, Just Be Inc. is a youth organisation dedicated to empowering young female minorities in need of support. The foundation aims to create a safe place for survivors to gather and share their stories while promoting 'empowerment through empathy'. The movement expanded to include leadership training for survivors to bring programs and healing to their communities.

October 2017 – Harvey Weinstein accused

In 2017, the New York Times published an article accusing Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault and harassment. Alyssa Milano, an actor and activist, suggested that victims of sexual harassment or assault write 'me too' on their social media to indicate its prevalence. In October 2017 alone, the #MeToo hashtag was used more than a million times around the world.

February 2018 – Time's Up UK launches Justice and Equality Fund

With a starting donation of £1 million from Emma Watson, Time's Up UK launched a fund alongside Rosa, the UK women's fund. The fund provides money for projects that offer legal support to women in addition to projects that seek to tackle sexual harassment more generally.

July 2018 – Commons Women and Equalities Select Committee (WESC) Report, 'Sexual Harassment in the Workplace'

The Committee made a number of recommendations ranging from protections against third-party harassment to changing the time limits to bring an Employment Tribunal claim under the Equality Act 2010 (EqA). Joanna Blackburn, Mishcon Employment partner, gave evidence at the Select Committee.

September 2018 – Megan Butler's letter to the WESC in response to the report

Megan Butler, Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) Executive Director of Supervision - Investment, Wholesale and Specialists Division, writes a letter to the WESC, which coined the (now common) phrase "non-financial misconduct".

December 2018 – Government publishes first response to 2018 WESC Report on sexual harassment in the workplace

The Government partially responds to the report and says it will consult on a number of recommendations (see below).

June 2019 – WESC Report on Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs)

Covering much of the same ground as its 2018 report, this report focuses on NDAs. The report recommends, amongst other things, that employees are given legal advice before signing NDAs, and that NDAs are set out clearly in settlement agreements and statements of particulars.

October 2019 – Government responds to WESC Report on NDAs

The Government's brief response shares plans to ensure NDAs do not prevent disclosures to the police and healthcare professionals. For more detail, see our article written at the time: Shining a light on sexual harassment in the workplace.

January 2020 – EHRC guidance on sexual harassment and harassment at work

The EHRC publishes non-statutory technical guidance on the law and best practice in tackling harassment, including explaining the definition and giving examples of harassment and victimisation, highlighting the effect of harassment in the workplace, and explaining an employer's responsibilities and how to prevent and respond to harassment.

March 2021 – Everyone's Invited, a movement specific to the Education sector sparks widespread media attention

In March 2021, as students started tentatively returning to schools after the second Covid-enforced lockdown, a media tsunami swept across the sector. Under the radar at first, a website called Everyone's Invited had been collecting and publishing anonymous testimonies of alleged misogyny, harassment, sexual abuse and sexual assault in education institutions since the previous summer.  The website, which had been founded by Soma Sara, a former student at Wycombe Abbey and UCL, was re-publishing the testimonies on its social media profiles.

In April 2021, Everyone’s Invited triggered an Ofsted review in schools, that reviewed safeguarding policies and practices relating to sexual abuse.

March 2022 - Signing of new International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention on Violence and Harassment

The UK becomes the 11th country to ratify the ILO’s Violence and Harassment Convention. The Convention recognises that everyone has a right to a workplace free from violence and harassment.

September 2022 – Randstad survey

Ranstad's survey of 6,000 UK workers across construction, education, healthcare and technology industries finds that 72% of women surveyed had encountered inappropriate behaviour from male colleagues.

The wider impact

Law reform

The Government has agreed to implement a number of the recommendations made in the 2018 WESC report. The response identified four key areas for reform:

  1. the imposition of a positive duty on employers to prevent sexual harassment in the workplace;
  2. the introduction of workplace protection against third-party harassment;
  3. the potential extension of time limits to bring a claim under the EqA from three months to six months to account for the trauma of sexual harassment; and
  4. protections for interns and volunteers under the EqA.

Nearly two years on since the response was published, it remains to be seen when the Government will implement its proposals. However, it is clear that employers will be expected to take more action to prevent and tackle sexual harassment in the workplace. 

Moreover, in March 2022, the UK ratified the ILO's Violence and Harassment Convention, which will become binding in 2023. A key tenet of the Convention is the universal right to a workplace that is free from violence and harassment. The UK will have to regularly report to the ILO on implementation guidance, which may serve as additional impetus for the Government following through on its commitment to harassment reform.

Regulatory intervention

In addition to the focus on legal reform, we have also seen an increased regulatory emphasis on diversity and inclusion and on non-financial misconduct. Regulators such as the Financial Conduct Authority emphasise that creating an inclusive culture in which employees are able to speak up is a business imperative.

In July 2021, the FCA, Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA), and the Bank of England published a Discussion Paper on diversity and inclusion (DP 21/2) with a view in the financial services sector to accelerating the pace of change and increasing supervisory engagement on the topic.

The FCA has also emphasised its focus on non-financial misconduct, confirming that the FCA "view[s] sexual harassment as misconduct which falls within the scope of [its] regulatory framework". The FCA has the power to make a prohibition order (prohibiting an individual from performing functions in relation to a regulated activity) where it appears that the person is not a fit and proper person to perform those functions.

Conclusion

In the five years since the Harvey Weinstein scandal, it is clear that the #MeToo movement has brought about a number of changes, though many are yet to be fully implemented. What is apparent is that the movement remains key in driving critical employment law reform to protect employees, and has irrevocably altered expectations on employers, regulators and lawmakers. 

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