It’s the timing that galls, almost as much as the transgressions.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was cupping the breast and grabbing the buttocks of subordinates not 10 or 20 years ago, according to the damning state attorney general’s report, but in 2019 and 2020.

After a national reckoning on sexual misconduct that toppled powerful men, including Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken and Les Moonves.

After he aligned himself with the #MeToo Movement, and publicly advocated for legislation that has made it easier for women in his state to seek redress for sexual harassment and rape.

The fact that men of a certain age had supposedly learned something about propriety and power dynamics didn’t stop Cuomo from allegedly kissing his executive assistant on the lips.

It’s clear that #MeToo raised awareness about the pervasiveness of sexual misconduct, and helped victims better understand their rights and options for holding harassers and abusers accountable. Less clear is the extent to which the movement has curbed bad behavior.


Experts who spend their days thinking about these issues say they’re not overly optimistic that the instances of inappropriate conduct — and the power dynamics that enable them — have changed much since 2018.

“I think human nature is resistant to change, and people are going to convince themselves of what they want to believe. And systems are set up to protect powerful people,” says Elaine Herskowitz, a former policy attorney at the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission who now runs a consulting firm that conducts human-resources training and investigations into claims of sexual harassment and discrimination. “I certainly continued to get cases with people accused of harassment who should’ve known better.”

The cases she continues to see are mostly men in executive positions, says Herskowitz, “where they’ve got power over the target of their behavior and they assume they can get away with it or they can easily delude themselves into thinking their behavior is welcome.”

In October, 2018, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission reported that it had experienced a 13% increase in harassment claims during the previous 12 months, a jump it attributed to the #MeToo movement.

Victims’ rights advocates say the increase in claims reflected the new sense of power some targets of harassment and abuse felt about their ability to report even years-old transgressions.

For example, the day after Christine Blasey Ford testified on national television that she had been assaulted more than three decades earlier by a fellow high school student, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, the National Sexual Assault Hotline saw a 338 percent increase in calls, its highest spike ever.


“These cases and the way the media covers them sends very clear messages to survivors,” says Erinn Robinson, spokeswoman for the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, which operates the hotline. “They have the ability to help empower people to come forward.”

“The most egregious forms of sexual harassment have declined,” says Stefanie Johnson, a management professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s Leeds School of Business, who has studied the impact of the #MeToo movement on women in the workplace. Her research found that a significantly smaller percentage of women experienced sexual coercion or unwanted sexual attention at the office in 2018 than in 2016.

“If you’re talking about, like, ‘I demand that you have sex with me or you’re fired,’ I think that is less frequent,” she says.

But Johnson’s research also showed that over the same period there was a sharp rise in what she calls “gender harassment” — treatment that “may include things like a supervisor or co-worker making sexist remarks, telling inappropriate stories, or displaying sexist material” — which may have come as a backlash to the #MeToo movement. “Someone might say, ‘Hey that’s a nice suit. Oh, am I allowed to say that? Or are you going to sue me for sexual harassment?” Johnson says. “It’s just as bad as sexual harassment in terms of its impact on women. It’s just not necessarily sexual in nature.”

Those findings ring true for Susan Strauss, a Minnesota-based consultant often brought in by companies to investigate harassment allegations.

“These are behaviors that might be difficult to say even rise to the level of illegal sexual harassment,” she says. “And because of that it makes it more difficult for women to feel supported if they go and complain.”


This kind of bad behavior takes subtler forms: Making sexist comments about another woman in a female colleague’s presence, for example, or sabotaging a woman’s work so she doesn’t advance professionally. It can be worst for women in male-dominated fields; Strauss recently spoke to two women who were the only female engineers employed by their firm, who both were planning to quit “because they were not being listened to, being passed over for promotions, and they were just sick of it.”

There’s still plenty of blatant sexual harassment as well, says Strauss. In recent years, she says, she’s been hired to evaluated cases that have stunned her with their flagrancy.

“The lawyer and I will talk and say, ‘Why is this behavior still occurring?'” she says. “I think there are some men that have a pathology that drives them to view women in this way. I think some will say, ‘Well, it’s not that big a deal. She needs to pull up her bootstraps and deal with it.’ And some will say, ‘Well, if it’s not so bad that it’s illegal then I’m just going to continue to do it.’ “

A report released last month by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that sexual harassment in the workplace can cost women $1 million or more in earnings as they lose work or are forced to change jobs.

“If you ask me if the numbers have decreased I would say no,” says C. Nicole Mason, the organization’s president and chief executive, “because we have workplace cultures where there are power differentials and men and women are treated differently.”

Passing legislation that make it easier for targets of sexual harassment and assault to come forward is starting to help turn the heightened awareness sparked by the #MeToo movement into something concrete, says Mason. According to a September 2020 report by the National Women’s Law Center, 19 states had enacted new protections for victims and more than 200 new bills were introduced in state legislatures to deter harassment.


But there’s a limit to how much societal awareness and new legislation can deter harassers, says Lynne Bernabei, a Washington, D.C., attorney who has been representing victims of harassment for more than 30 years.

The real power, she says, lies with corporations. Companies need to be more transparent in how they deal with harassers, Bernabei says, so that employees know what protections they’ll receive if they come forward with a complaint. Also, they need to promote more women to executive positions — a lot more. “Once you get more women at higher wages, you’ll get less of this,” she says.

The allegations against Cuomo might be disheartening to those who thought the #MeToo movement should have deterred brazen sexual misconduct by powerful men. But the fallout for Cuomo — the attorney general’s investigation, the governor’s resignation — constitute a win for the movement, says Bernabei.

“I think this will go down as an important report that will help change people’s perceptions of what’s acceptable in the workforce,” she says. “This is an area where things don’t change overnight.”