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California Toughens Sexual Harassment Laws, Launches Gender Parity Push for Corporate Boards

California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law Sunday four bills designed to toughen the state’s enforcement of sexual harassment laws and make it easier for victims to pursue civil claims. The Golden State also enacted a law mandating that public companies based in California have at least one female board member by the end of next year.

The bills were part of a package heavily supported by entertainment industry figures in response to the outpouring of sexual misconduct claims during the past year. One component of the package that did not make it all the way to the governor’s signature was a bid to ban arbitration clauses in employment agreements — a common feature in entertainment industry contracts that has help shield harassment cases from public view.

Actors Rosanna Arquette, Mira Sorvino and Chantal Cousineau were among the industry players who lobbied for the legislation, dubbed the “Take the Lead” bills as the laws put California at the forefront of efforts to combat systemic abuse that women across all industries often face. All four were sponsored by Democratic female state senators.

Senate Bill 820, pushed by Sen. Connie Leyva (D-Chino) makes it unlawful for settlement agreements to include confidentiality provisions that impede a person’s right to pursue civil damages against employers and harassers.

Senate Bill 1300, sponsored by Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) toughens the level of liability that employers face if discrimination and harassment is conducted in the course of business by outside contractors and other non-employees. This is significant to the entertainment industry where so many positions are held by freelance and contract employees rather than full-time staff.

“By broadening the term ’employer,’ California will most certainly (help) stop the epidemic of sexual harassment that plagues the entertainment industry,” Cousineau told Variety.

Senate Bill 1343, sponsored by Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) expands the requirements on employers regarding sexual harassment training.

Senate Bill 826, also authored by Jackson, requires public companies based in California to have at least one woman on their board of directors by the end of next year. The requirement rises to two female board members by 2021 if the company has five directors, or to three if the company has six or more directors. The state will maintain an online database available to the public to track the number of companies in compliance with the law. Sexual harassment experts say the presence of women at the highest levels of decision-making can have a big impact on how companies handle sexual harassment and discrimination problems.

“Given all the special privileges that corporations have enjoyed for so long, it’s high time corporate boards include the people who constitute more than half the ‘persons’ in America,” Brown wrote in a letter to the state Senate after signing the board law. He noted that the bill may still have some “flaws” but emphasized that “recent events in Washington, D.C. and beyond make it crystal clear that many are not getting the message.”

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