Professor Minna Kotkin Battles Sexual Harassment Issues in the Workplace
Long before Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement became front-page news, Professor Minna Kotkin was exploring and writing about sexual harassment issues in the workplace. Kotkin is the director of the Law School’s Employment Law Clinic and teaches Employment Discrimination and New York Civil Practice. She has written and lectured extensively on issues of employment discrimination and sexual harassment—and as the focus on these issues intensified last fall, she cemented her role as one of the nation’s go-to legal experts.
At the height of the Weinstein uproar, Kotkin penned an op-ed in the Washington Post called “How the Legal World Built a Wall of Silence around Workplace Sexual Harassment,” arguing that the U.S. regulatory and judicial systems are complicit in protecting workplace harassers from public exposure and condemnation. The piece highlighted the ways in which harassment cases involving high-profile figures such as Weinstein, Bill O’Reilly, and Roger Ailes shed light on the much larger issue of how confidentiality agreements and other legal maneuvers keep this conduct under the radar and perpetuate the problem.
“Confidentiality agreements help protect serial harassers,” Kotkin wrote. “But with public attention now focused on harassment, victims and their lawyers can shift the balance of power in settlement negotiations.” She advocated for congressional action to eliminate the secrecy of Equal Employment Opportunity Commission proceedings, noting “now is a good time for civil rights and women’s organizations to take up this battle.”
Kotkin also has suggested concrete steps individuals should take when faced with workplace sexual harassment. “Put everything in writing,” she told the New York Times. “You don’t just go and talk to H.R.”
At this year’s Edward V. Sparer Public Interest Law Forum, which explored issues of sexual harassment and low-income workers, Kotkin encouraged members of the audience to expand their thinking beyond the legal definition of sexual harassment.
“There are many types of harassment in the workplace,” she says. “The press is focused on the sexual variety, but we should think about harassment more broadly. Harassment can be overt: ‘Sleep with me and you’ll get a promotion,’ or it could be a hostile work environment.”
Outlining the legal barriers for low-wage workers to bring a claim, Kotkin cited the difficulty in accessing resources and systems that employers put in place. “There are a lot of hoops you need to go through to bring a complaint—and then there’s also the fear of retaliation,” she said, adding an appeal directly to the law students in the room: “The biggest challenge for low-income workers is the difficulty in getting a lawyer to represent you.”