Cuomo investigation returns spotlight to workplace harassment
The independent investigation that found New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) harassed almost a dozen women has put the spotlight back on the issue of sexual harassment in the workplace.
The report, which details actions that apparently took place over years and ran the gamut from inappropriate comments to unwanted touching, is perhaps the sharpest look yet at how the issue plays out in a government office. But experts say it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Twenty-one percent of Americans say they have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace, according to a 2018 report from Edison Research. On top of that, experts say that most sexual harassment cases go unreported.
“Gov. Cuomo’s conduct was collectively enabled by many other bad actors,” said Noreen Farrell, the executive director of the women’s rights group Equal Rights Advocates.
“They were working within a system that was really built to deter survivors from seeking and obtaining justice,” she said.
Equal Rights Advocates has joined a number of other gender justice and survivor organizations to call on the New York State legislature to remove Cuomo from office.
The independent investigation launched by New York Attorney General Letitia James found that Cuomo and his aides also retaliated against women who came forward with allegations against him.
Lindsey Boylan, the governor’s first accuser, is planning to sue Cuomo for alleged retaliation, according to her attorney Jill Bassinger.
“There was an entire conspiracy to diminish her and to hurt her credibility, and we find that to be the most offensive part of all this,” Bassinger said.
Boylan and several other women accused Cuomo of sexual misconduct, including groping, unwanted kissing and inappropriate remarks in a workplace environment.
James and attorney Anne Clark spoke with 179 people during the investigation as well as 11 complainants, current and former members of the executive chamber and more. Prosecutors also found the governor harassed a state trooper assigned to his protective detail.
Despite receiving calls from the nation’s top Democrats, including President Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Cuomo has not yet resigned and is denying the allegations.
“The fact that Cuomo is refusing to step down and may face removal from a Democratically-run and -controlled legislature speaks volumes,” said Caroline Heldman, chair of Occidental College’s politics department.
“The way in which he’s digging in his heels is indicative of men in positions of power who use their power and think that they’re going to get away with it,” she added.
Cuomo joins a growing list of powerful men who have been removed from their positions as a result of sexual misconduct allegations against them. In 2017, the “Me Too” movement led to men across various industries, including former film producer Harvey Weinstein and former television anchors Matt Lauer and Charlie Rose, being ousted from their jobs.
Though observers note there is still much work to be done in the public and private sector in addressing sexual harassment, the Me Too movement spurred a number of legislative reforms on the issue. Multiple states, including California, have introduced pieces of legislation aimed at ending nondisclosure agreements that could silence victims, give up future work plans to resolve a harassment claim, and force victims to settle claims in a private setting.
“[The Me Too movement] helped drive the conversation beyond individual perpetrators to the system that allows harassment to exist,” Farrell said. “I think the movement exposed the complicity of others at the highest levels within the workplace who are protecting abusers for the cost of profit or power.”
“I think the New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo case presents textbook examples of all of these devastating factors at play,” she added.
Experts point out that workplace sexual harassment knows no boundaries when it comes to pay level or industries. In fact, experts point out that it is often the most vulnerable employees who are most at risk.
“The real root of the issue is this extremely large gap of power between people who are most frequently being harmed in the workplace, who are often times not working in professional jobs, who are people who are making minimum wage at the bottom rungs of the economy and everyone else who has power above them,” said Sheerine Alemzadeh, co-founder and co-director of Healing to Action a nonprofit group aimed at combating gender violence.
In Cuomo’s accusers’ cases and so many others, there is often no set protocol for reporting misconduct in the workplace, making the process that much more difficult.
“There has to be some thought given to if the governor or someone in the governor’s office is the bad actor, how is that handled?” said Edgar Ndjatou, the executive director of the nonprofit group Workplace Fairness.
And with the economic turmoil of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, experts say that employees have become more financially vulnerable, opening them up to the threat of workplace harassment.
Additionally, the pandemic’s shift to virtual workplaces does not appear to have deterred cases of sexual harassment. Over one-quarter of workers reported experiencing harassment virtually, according to a survey released last month by TalentLMS and the Purple Campaign.
“People are really scared about their economic well-being,” Alemzadeh said. “People on the lowest rungs of the economy already can’t pay their rent. So thinking about how you’re going to be able to survive if you take a risk of trying to hold somebody accountable that has more power.”
And studies show that holding someone accountable for sexual harassment in the workplace has its consequences. In 2017, 72 percent of cases filed with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission resulted in some form of retaliation.
“The structure is not really conducive to people coming forward and doing anything about it, which creates this culture of impunity where people continue to take advantage of that,” Alemzadeh said.
But the reignition of the public conversation surrounding the allegations against Cuomo could lead to new actions taken by workplaces in the public and private sectors to address harassment.
“What happens to Gov. Cuomo will test the progress of the Me Too movement,” Farrell said.
She pointed specifically to the scope and depth of the investigation into Cuomo, as well as the conduct that was under investigation.
“The report considers a range of conduct that had been previously ignored before ‘Me Too,’ ” she said, referring to inappropriate comments and unwanted hugs.
Farrell also pointed to the widespread bipartisan calls for Cuomo’s resignation, including those from his staunchest political allies.
“That’s really powerful,” she said.