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An Overview of Policy Efforts to Combat Sexual Harassment and Other Forms of Discrimination in 2021

Written by Monika Dymerski

The “me too” movement was a watershed moment in American history. Tarana Burke, the founder of the growing movement, has been using the terminology since the early 2000s. However, it wasn’t until 2017 that people across the country and the world took a shared ownership of the meaning of “me too” to speak out about their experiences and demand improved accountability, transparency, and greater protections for survivors of sexual harassment and violence.

The #MeToo hashtag went viral after allegations of sexual abuse against Harvey Weinstein were made public and millions of women were empowered to share their experiences of sexual harassment and assault. Increased public awareness about the extent of the problem provided an important opportunity for advocates to push for bold reforms at the state and federal levels.

Since then, numerous laws have been enacted throughout the country to better prevent and address sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination. However, many employees still face harassment in the workplace today. The work is far from done and it must continue in light of the harm that sexual harassment inflicts on workers, predominantly women, who experience it.

According to the Pew Research Center, 6 in 10 women say they’ve experienced verbal or physical sexual harassment; however, this number is likely higher since victims are often hesitant to speak up. The hesitation to report is linked to a variety of factors, a prominent one being that 75% of workplace harassment victims experience retaliation when they speak up.   Sexual harassment is not only harmful to workers but also poses negative consequences for employers who face employee turnover, legal costs, increased absences, and reduced productivity overall. 

COVID-19 highlighted the broad structural inequities that hold back women, in particular women of color. Employees, especially those in low-paid industries, are at an increased risk for assault and harassment because they fear that speaking out will put their job and economic security at risk during this crisis.  It is therefore particularly important now that we continue to strengthen workplace rights, including stronger protections against harassment. 

In 2021, legislation was introduced in states throughout the country to combat harassment, including by restricting the use of non-disclosure agreements and other contractual provisions used to silence workers from speaking out; requiring sexual harassment prevention training; extending statutes of limitations (filing deadlines); and providing legal protections to more workers.