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Women in US Need More Options than the Media to Combat Harassment

Allegations Against NY Governor Cuomo Highlight Need for Real Protections

Lindsey Boylan, a former state economic development adviser for New York Governor Andrew Cuomo, speaks to people at a rally in New York City, March 20, 2021.  © 2021 AP Photo/Eduardo Munoz Alvarez

The sexual harassment accusations against New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo are mounting as women turn to the media — on Twitter, in a personal essay, and in high-profile interviews with national news outlets — to detail their allegations against him.

In the United States, the media has in recent years been a key channel for women to make complaints against powerful men. For some, it may seem like the only option, especially when formal channels of redress don’t feel safe or effective. But it comes at a heavy cost to their privacy.

Just Google “New York sexual harassment allegations” to see how every aspect of these women’s lives is in the public domain. Their work history, photographs, social media accounts, and credibility have become the focus of intense public curiosity and scrutiny. The validity of their allegations have become subject to the court of public opinion, and issues like whether Cuomo should resign or not, are subject to polling.

For some, speaking out publicly can be empowering, by lifting the silence and stigma around sexual harassment. For others it is a desperate measure, a last resort. Even this deeply intrusive option is not available to those whose harassers are not “worthy” of media interest, but are instead household employers, clients at restaurants, or fellow office workers.

As the #MeToo movement and decades of women’s rights organizing have powerfully exposed, the ongoing scandal isn’t just the abuse itself but how it continues, often with impunity.

The 2019 International Labour Organization (ILO) Violence and Harassment Convention is a landmark advance in the battle against workplace harassment. The convention provides strong, forward-looking guidance on steps governments and employers should take to end violence and harassment at work.

These steps include a comprehensive, proactive approach emphasizing prevention. These standards also obligate governments to ensure rigorous enforcement through inspections, investigations, safe and accessible complaints mechanisms, and whistleblower protections.

Some of these approaches are in 2019 reforms to New York State law. But these policies need to be backed by changes in organizational culture, including from the top, and a growing track record of successful implementation to be effective.

Workers, volunteers, job-seekers, and others linked to a workplace, such as clients, patients, and students, deserve real protections. The media plays a role in fighting sexual harassment, but is no substitute for trustworthy complaint channels, protection from retaliation, and accountability measures that work.

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