By Rose Ors

June 6, 2019

On October 5, 2017, The New York Times published the first story to expose Harvey Weinstein as a serial sexual predator. Five days later the hashtag #MeToo went viral. By November, #MeToo had been tweeted 2.3 million times from 85 different countries. Since November 2017, it has been tweeted roughly 19 million times and given rise to the hashtags #BalanceTonPorc (Rat Out Your Pig) in France, #NiUnaMenos (Not One Fewer) in Argentina, #WithYou in Japan, and #PrimeiroAssedio (First Harassment) in Brazil, among others.

The social media firestorm was accompanied by millions of ordinary people around the globe—mostly women—taking to the street in protest and in unity against centuries of silence. All of these events, along with many other forms of protest happened with no single leader or organization galvanizing them. Rather, it happened with a single tweet that awakened our individual and collective memories and challenged institutional complacency and selective amnesia. The tweets and protests also spurred women to name their perpetrators and the news highlighted how they were being heard. This in turn garnered a growing throng of voices—still mostly women—committed to changing a culture of tolerance to one of utter intolerance for sexual harassment.

So on May 14, 2019, a little over a year after the #MeToo hashtag turned into a clarion call for change, Berkeley Law did what it does exceptionally well. It convened an extraordinary group of leaders—academics, lawyers, activist—warriors all in the fight to end sexual harassment. They came from six continents. They came to educate, to advocate, and to learn. They came to craft strategies and solutions. The conference, aptly named “Global Resistance to Sexual Harassment and Violence,” was the second annual event on the global #MeToo movement co-presented by Berkeley Law Executive Education and the law school’s international 400-member Comparative Equality & Anti-Discrimination Law Study Group, led by Berkeley Law professor David Oppenheimer.

The three keynotes were delivered by women who have devoted their lives to fighting for the rights of girls, women, and others who are vulnerable because of such factors as disability, race, class, sexual orientation, and ethnicity. There was Purna Sen, who in March was appointed by the United Nations, UN Women to take on the newly created role of executive coordinator and spokesperson addressing sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination. Her far-reaching mandate includes identifying and addressing the deeply rooted structural inequality between men and women. She spoke about the importance of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), the treaty ratified by the UN General Assembly in 1979. Also known as the “international bill of rights for women”, CEDAW has given international validation and support for gender equality. Of greater import, CEDAW has codified an international legal standard around the rights of women to partake in every aspect of life as equal to men.

There was Saru Jayaraman, who, among her other advocacy and teaching roles, is the co-founder of Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, a nonprofit devoted to bettering the working conditions of the 13 million U.S. restaurant workers or “tip workers”—most of whom are women. Many of these tip workers earn a pittance in wages with some earning as little as $2.13 an hour. She explained how these tip workers face rampant sexual harassment by customers, supervisors, and fellow workers: “If a woman … knows that her only income comes from tips, she has no power to reject harassment….”

Lastly, there was Catharine MacKinnon, a law professor and feminist legal scholar who pioneered the legal claim for sexual harassment as sex discrimination in employment and education.  In her stirring speech, McKinnon reminded us that the phrase “Me Too” is not new. It was first used by activist Tarana Burke a decade ago to connect with underprivileged girls victimized by sexual abuse.  She noted how the #MeToo movement has done what the law on sexual harassment has not. It has created a culture that is dismantling the two biggest barriers to ending sexual harassment—“the disbelief and trivializing dehumanization of its victims.” She energized the audience with her impassioned cry that the only legal change that would match the scale of #MeToo is an Equal Rights Amendment guaranteeing equality under the Constitution for all.

Global Scope & Intersectionality

The plenary sessions began with a panel of women lawyers and activists reporting on sexual harassment laws in the Czech Republic, France, Japan, Spain, Iran, Australia, Colombia, South Korea, Afghanistan, and China. The global reporting highlighted the progress that has been made in the successful use of existing sexual harassment laws to bring down perpetrators and the enactment of new legislation to make claims possible by victims. It also highlighted how much still must be done and the urgency of the cause. The reporting and stories shared during the session strengthened one of the themes that appeared in most of the keynotes and plenary sessions—that changing the laws is not enough. Equally, or perhaps more importantly, and certainly far more difficult to undo, are the patriarchal barriers—some life-threatening—that are encoded in laws and traditions dating back centuries.

The next plenary focused on the need to view #MeToo more broadly to include those who, because of their religion, ethnicity, caste, race, disability, sexual orientation or economic status, are vulnerable to sexual harassment. That is, it must take into account “intersectionality,” the term coined in 1989 by scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw to explain the overlapping factors that give rise to sexual harassment and other discriminatory practices.  This session, composed of legal educators and practitioners from around the world, persuasively made the case that the end of sexual discrimination can occur only if it is inclusive.

Some Next Steps

In addition to the keynotes and plenary sessions, the day offered some meaty breakout sessions around such hot-button topics as the role of the general counsel and board of directors in addressing harassment, as well as due process, the role of law reform and litigation in finding solutions. Many ideas were presented during these sessions, including the need for greater leadership amongst the board and C-suite, the elimination of forced arbitration and nondisclosure agreements, and the extension of statutes of limitations for all forms of discrimination.  And these sessions, too, echoed the need for a cultural shift – one that in unison with the shifts in business, politics, and law, protects our humanity by making all of us feel safe where we work, where we play, and where we pray. It will be a long road, but as McKinnon asserted, “we are winning.”

It Took a Village

The success of the conference was in no small part made possible by the event organizers, David Oppenheimer and Ann Noel. “David and Ann did a phenomenal job enlisting the support of law firms, corporations, and non-profits,” said Jim Gilbert, Director of Berkeley Law Executive Education. “This event wouldn’t have been possible without their tireless effort and those organizations that stepped up to help fund the program and get the word out.” These sponsors and partners included organizations such as Facebook, National Women’s Law Center, Fox Corporation, California Employment Lawyers Association, Equal Justice Society, Fondation des Femmes, and the Labor & Employment Section of the California Lawyers Association. They also included the Women in Business Law Initiative (hosted by the Berkeley Center for Law and Business) and Berkeley Law’s Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice and William and the Ariadna Miller Institute for Global Challenges and the Law, among others.

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