Consequences for Speaking Up

The Internet was abuzz with news of Emma Watson’s speech at the United Nations—first, with chatter about her public stance on gender equality and then with threats of scandal and exposure in retaliation for her explicit embrace of “feminism.”  Watson, best known to much of the world as Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies, now serves as a U.N. Women Goodwill Ambassador. Although Watson’s particular platform as actress and U.N. ambassador make her stand out on a global stage, the response her message provoked is merely an amplified version of what many women experience when they advocate for equality on behalf of themselves and other women.

Watson’s speech announced a campaign to fight gender inequality.  She articulated a theory of feminism as “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.”  These include economic equality and equal pay, which have been addressed on this blog on several occasions.   Identifying several negative stereotypes associated with feminism, Watson embraced the term and highlighted the burdens that sexism and gender stereotyping place on both women and men.  Her campaign, HeForShe, quickly generated online interest and support from a number of male public figures responding to her invitation.

However, at the same time, a website appeared claiming to target Watson as the next victim of a series of online leaks of nude pictures of female celebrities as a punishment for her speech.  Ultimately, the threat to embarrass Watson may have been a bizarre hoax to take down 4chan, an online message board.  Whether the threat was a radical response of Watson’s detractors or was just a cruel trivialization of the important issues Watson discussed, the suggestion that Watson should be punished for taking a stand mirrors the all-too-real behavior that plays out in the lives of many women who attempt to challenge discrimination where it often hits them the hardest: in the workplace.

The flap about Watson’s speech serves as a reminder that speaking up about gender equality can come at a cost, even though such actions are protected under U.S. law. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects against discrimination on the basis of several personal characteristics, including gender, prohibits retaliation against those who oppose discrimination or participate in the complaint process. Nevertheless, the EEOC received 38,539 complaints including charges of employer retaliation in 2013, or 41.1% of all claims filed—a number that has increased steadily for more than a decade.

It is crucial that women who raise concerns in their workplaces know and invoke their rights to do so, and to seek legal counsel if they believe they suffer retaliation. At the same time, there should be some comfort in the knowledge that employers’ liability for retaliation can often be higher than the underlying liability for discrimination; as a result, the law imposes a particular duty on employers to protect those brave enough to stand up for what is right.  Change in our communities and workplaces can come only when there are those willing to call for it – even when the risk of retaliation exists.  It is a risk worth braving as what is at stake – our careers, our financial stability, and our dignity – are factors too great to sacrifice.

Katherine Kimpel

Kate Kimpel is the Senior Editor of Shattering the Ceiling and is also an accomplished civil rights lawyer. She represents women and people of color in discrimination cases (and other kinds of employment and civil rights matters).  When not lawyering, she likely is bragging about her hound dog Ulysses, inventing cocktails to serve at her next dinner party, or convincing her husband to watch reruns of a Joss Whedon television show (any of them will do). 

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