Miss Gee Collection's take on South Korea's #MeToo movement

Fashion’s biggest #MeToo moments have each found their own avenue into the public consciousness, from Kate Upton’s Twitter takedown at Guess to a poll of outraged women at Nike to headlines that wrapped up myriad complaints against famously out-of-bounds photographers. Most recently, Flipkart’s cofounder and chief executive officer Binny Bansal lost his job after a sexual misconduct allegation revealed poor judgment by the former executive.

And while the allegations led to more or less immediate change as society reevaluated the issue — corporate titans were felled, magazines moved away from their favorite photographers and workplace polices were changed — more lasting change might well come from the legal system.

But don’t expect it to come fast.

The #MeToo movement became mainstream 10 days after The New York Times published its Harvey Weinstein exposé on Oct. 5 last year, exposing a culture of open secrets. Actor Alyssa Milano — costar of Weinstein victim Rose McGowan and friend to Weinstein’s wife Georgina Chapman — asked victims of sexual harassment to tweet #MeToo. And tweet they did. There have been 867 high-profile allegations of sexual misconduct voiced publicly since then — 691 of them come from the U.S. — and countless more from lesser-known people, according to Temin and Co., a management consultancy. 

“Weinstein triggered a tsunami of accusations,” said Davia Temin, president and ceo of Temin and Co. “The lid has been taken off and a lot of behavior has been called into account.”

Out of the accusations, 66 harassment cases have been filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, or EEOC, thus far in 2018; 41 of those cases involved some form of alleged sexual harassment. The numbers represent a 12 percent increase in sexual harassment cases compared with the total number in 2017. 

Many victims never tell their stories because of the perceived stigma, or fear that no one will believe them. Others simply can’t afford the legal fees. Most cases are settled out of court and often take years to resolve.

“These things are very hard to prove,” Temin said. “Historically it’s been bad for the victim.”

While private settlements might be cheaper and easier for victims who don’t want to relive their trauma, it also keeps the news of repeat offenders and companies’ wrongdoings private, which could lead to more victims down the line. 

Complicating the issue are false accusations, which can hurt employers. The issue only grew more heated in the wake of Brett Kavanaugh’s contentious confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court, which at once highlighted the risks that victims of abuse face should they come forward and worries of false allegations and the weaponization of the #MeToo movement. Some men have taken to avoiding female colleagues out of fear that they’ll say the wrong thing, in effect preventing more junior women from advancing in the workplace. 

Other times, victims simply don’t win their cases and their complaints become little more than a nuisance to companies.   

“There has been a tremendous amount of telling victims’ stories in the #MeToo movement,” said Susan Scafidi, an attorney and founder of the Fashion Law Institute at Fordham University. “But what we haven’t really done is figure out what to do next.”

At the federal level, there have been virtually no changes. Instead, changes are showing up at the state, local and even corporate level.

Many companies have been quick to implement mandatory implicit bias training and some states have placed limits on employee nondisclosure agreements, which in the past prevented victims from talking about what happened to them. Other states have made it so that all companies are subject to sexual harassment cases, not just companies with more than four people.

“These are little moves, but they’re enshrining big changes,” said Scafidi, who added, “Attitudes change generationally.”

But that’s not much comfort to the women embroiled in sexual harassment cases.

In November, Nike filed a motion to dismiss an August lawsuit filed by two former employees who claimed gender bias and unequal pay compared with their male counterparts.

“Women’s complaints to human resources about discrimination and harassment, including sexual assault, are ignored or mishandled. Male bad behavior is rarely penalized,” the original complaint read.

The footwear and apparel-maker said the claims, referring to all female employees, were “too broad” and lacked any real evidence.

“Even if plaintiffs somehow demonstrated that a wage difference exists for every female employee at Nike’s world headquarters, Nike is entitled to show, for each person, that any difference is based upon legitimate factors other than sex — again requiring a fact-intensive assessment as to each individual’s education, experience, skills and performance,” the court document read. 

Nike’s motion to dismiss follows a string of other bad news for the company, including the departure of former brand president Trevor Edwards, who resigned in March after reports swirled of his inappropriate behavior, and other accusations of sexual harassment at the company. The most-recent claim comes from former Nike developer Cecily Schmidt, who alleged racial and sexual discrimination and retaliation for reporting, among other things.

In a separate case, Nike shareholders allege the company knew about the toxic work culture and did little to stop it.

Nike did not respond to a request for comment. 

Meanwhile, public pressure from the #MeToo movement is causing companies to take action. In November, Under Armour, the activewear company that is no stranger to diversity issues of its own, acknowledged that it stopped expensing strip clubs for company executives as recently as February. 

British men’s wear retailer Ted Baker also has fallen under public scrutiny recently, after female staffers at the brand said in a petition that they were tired of the workplace culture, which included inappropriate hugging by the company’s founder, Ray Kelvin. The company issued a statement saying that Kelvin greeted almost everyone with a hug, but that it was in no way mandatory. Nonetheless, Ted Baker has begun an independent investigation and Kelvin is on leave.

Other examples of change include the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which was founded earlier this year to assist-low wage women who have experienced sexual harassment. Since its inception more than 3,750 people have contacted the organization for help, according to Sharyn Tejani, director of the organization.

“At least [the victims] have a chance now,” Tejani said. “In the past, they couldn’t even find a lawyer.” 

Wendy Johnson Lario, a shareholder lawyer at the firm Greenberg Traurig, added that legal actions are usually a year or two removed from public opinions. 

“We’re seeing some very dramatic changes about how people talk about this around the water cooler and in corporate offices,” said Lario, who added that the number of sexual misconduct cases will likely level off in the future as people are less tolerant of the behavior in the first place. 

Last summer, the Kering Foundation addressed what could be done to protect women, and sometimes men, in the fashion world against violence. The results included addressing “healthy masculinity” and providing resources, such as web sites for victims to report incidents.

“All these little things are adding up,” Tejani said. “Men are being held accountable now more than they were in the past.” 

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