Last year was marked by women acting together. In small groups and large, women took on one of the most formidable barriers to gender equality: sexual harassment.
Women and their supporters took to the streets, the airwaves and the courts, charging some of the biggest names in corporate America with sweeping workplace harassment claims under the rug.
Many of these women’s efforts were aimed at ridding the workplace of mandatory private arbitration of sexual harassment accusations, a practice that prevents women
from having their day in court or sharing their accusations publicly, so that other women who may be vulnerable to the same harassment would be warned.
Last May, after 14 women who had accused Uber drivers of assault wrote a letter to Uber’s board enjoining them to end mandatory arbitration, Uber eliminated the practice. Lyft quickly followed suit.
That same month, workers at McDonald’s stores in eight states filed 10 complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, alleging they had been sexually harassed or assaulted on the job and had faced retaliation when they complained. At the time, a McDonald’s spokeswoman said the company didn’t tolerate misconduct. “We are and have been committed to a culture that fosters the respectful treatment of everyone,” Terri Hickey said in a statement.
But in September, hundreds of McDonald’s workers who claimed they faced workplace sexual harassment went on strike in 10 cities. Those who led the strike urged the company to hold mandatory training for managers and employees and to create a better way of responding to sexual harassment complaints. McDonald’s responded, noting it has “strong policies, procedures and training in place specifically designed to prevent sexual harassment.”
But the company went a step further, saying, “To ensure we are doing all that can be done, we have engaged experts in the areas of prevention and response, including RAINN [Rape Abuse & Incest National Network], to evolve our policies so everyone who works at McDonald’s does so in a secure environment every day.”
Two months later, thousands of Google employees staged a walkout after The New York Times revealed the company had given millions in payouts to male executives accused of sexual harassment, while remaining silent about their wrongdoing. Employees who organized the global walkout asked for the end of mandatory arbitration, a report on sexual harassment instances, greater transparency on salaries and other compensation, an employee representative on the board, and a chief diversity officer with direct access to the board.
A week later, Google changed its policy mandating private arbitration for sexual harassment cases. Facebook followed and changed its arbitration policy the next day.
From 1991 to 2017, the share of U.S. private sector, non-union employees who were subject to forced arbitration rose from 2% to 56%, according to a report by the Economic Policy Institute. While arbitration has its place, especially for women who prefer to maintain confidentiality, organizations must be more forthcoming in their handling of sexual harassment and discrimination claims — and their efforts to put an end to both.