What defines the success of a movement? Is it how loudly its message resounds? Or is it how much tangible change it makes in the lives of those it was formed to protect?
My history in activism, as a U.N. goodwill ambassador to combat human trafficking, tells me the former is important but the latter is crucial. Awareness is hollow if not followed by measurable action that makes a difference.
We now stand a year in from the publication of the fateful articles in the New York Times and the New Yorker that first exposed the predation of film world titan Harvey Weinstein. I was one of the women interviewed by journalist Ronan Farrow, and I contributed my story because I wanted to make change in the world into which my daughters and sons will come of age.
Over the last 12 months, an unprecedented number of men (and some women) have been called out for their horrendous acts. Some have lost jobs and status, a precious few face criminal proceedings, and some remain in power.
Every time a predator is held accountable, it shows the public’s hunger to stop the gross injustices of sexual harassment, abuse and rape. But when the dust settles, will corporate culture, the entertainment industry, the political arena and religious institutions go back to business as usual — protecting their bottom lines and reputations, silencing victims, keeping abusers in play.
To institute lasting change, and promote protection and equality under the law for everyone, we must enact legislation that reflects our newfound awareness. Since last winter, I have been championing a slate of bills in the California Legislature under the hashtag #TakeTheLead, which refers to the state’s opportunity to move to the forefront of protecting women’s and all workers’ rights. Co-sponsored by Equal Rights Advocates and the California Employment Lawyers Assn., this is the toughest slate of anti-sexual harassment bills in the nation.
California, with the fifth-largest economy in the world, is home to almost 40 million people, including 12% of the nation’s women and 18.53 million employed workers. If the #TakeTheLead bills are signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown this week, the impact would be enormous, empowering workers to free themselves of sexual harassment and fight injustice not only in California but in other states that see the laws’ success and adopt similar statutes.
Five critical bills concerning workplace harassment — AB 1870, SB 224, SB 1343, SB 1300 and AB 3080 — sit on the governor’s desk. He has until Sept. 30 to act on them. They include the following reforms:
* Extending the statute of limitations on filing sexual harassment claims from one to three years (comparable with other civil claims).
* Expanding the scope of sexual harassment protections in professional relationships, including redefining who can be liable for harassment beyond one’s direct employer (vital in today’s growing gig economy).
* Ending the impunity afforded abusers by the “one free grope” rule (shockingly, still followed).
* Mandating sexual harassment training in all businesses with more than five employees (instead of the current threshold of 50) and applying it to all workers (not just supervisors). The training would include “bystander intervention” techniques, potentially mobilizing whole workforces as reciprocally protective communities.
* Outlawing unscrupulous legal tactics employers use to keep victims from speaking and to shield harassers.
Yet we in the survivor community hear that Brown is under intense lobbying pressure to veto at least one of the bills, SB 1300, which would do away with non-disparagement clauses that are slipped into routine paperwork employees must sign when they’re hired, offered a raised or given a bonus. The clauses can come with a hefty fine (up to $1 million) if employees do speak out — against, for example, an abusive boss — even if the statements are true and the conduct broke the law. Untold numbers of victims have been silenced this way, especially those who lack the financial resources for a long, drawn-out legal battle to fight the unfairness of the clause.
Gov. Brown has spoken out vehemently against corruption, dishonesty and abuse of power in government. Now we urge him to oppose corrupt corporate interests that seek to stifle survivors’ voices and protect illegal, inhuman behavior. We ask him to stand with the millions of people around the world who have raised their voices in a brave chorus of #MeToo and #TimesUp, and to add to his legacy the fearless protection of all working people. We count on him to sign all five bills, and to turn a dream of our movement into reality.
Academy Award-winning actress Mira Sorvino has been a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime since 2009.