The litigator and former Michelle Obama chief of staff tells Moneyish how Hollywood women made Time’s Up ‘about more than themselves’
Nearly six months in, Time’s Up is ticking off some accomplishments.
The movement’s legal defense fund, announced in January as part of the star-powered campaign to combat workplace sexual harassment and administered through the National Women’s Law Center, has raised more than $21 million dollars from more than 20,000 people, Time’s Up co-leader Tina Tchen told Moneyish, with donations from all 50 states ranging from $5 to $2 million. With more than 2,700 individual requests for help — spanning 60-plus industries including nonprofit, manufacturing, agricultural and retail — more than 500 attorneys have offered their services, she added.
What’s more, two-thirds of people approaching the legal defense fund for help have self-identified as low-income, said Tchen, a veteran corporate litigator and former chief of staff to Michelle Obama — in other words, “exactly what we were hoping for.” “We really wanted this to be a resource for low-income workers who don’t have other recourse to getting legal representation and advice,” she said. (Asked whether she’d received any advice from the ex-FLOTUS, Tchen laughed and said, “If I had, I wouldn’t tell you.”)
But while $21 million may be a lot of cash, Tchen warned, “for anybody who’s paid legal bills, they know that that’s really a drop in the bucket.” “If we’ve got over 2,700 cases today and more coming in the door every day, that’s not going to go that far,” she said. “The GoFundMe site is up. Hold bake sales and book-club fundraisers, and you can talk about the issue and be able to take action on supporting folks in other industries, especially low-income workers.”
The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, launched in January amid the post-Harvey Weinstein reckoning, exists to defray legal costs incurred in workplace sexual harassment and related retaliation cases. Led by Tchen, attorney Robbie Kaplan, Democratic strategist Hilary Rosen and NWLC president Fatima Goss Graves, the defense fund screens online intake forms from alleged sexual harassment victims and, if they fall within the legal network’s scope, connects them with attorneys practicing in their state and know-your-rights materials. Since not all attorneys can afford to take on reduced-fee or pro bono work, they can apply for assistance through the fund, which has received dough from big-name donors like Kate Capshaw and Steven Spielberg’s Wunderkinder Foundation, Shonda Rhimes, Reese Witherspoon, Meryl Streep, talent agencies WME and CAA, Jennifer Aniston and Melinda Gates.
Aided by prominent firms like SKDKnickerbocker, Sunshine Sachs and 42West, Time’s Up also offers PR assistance. “We’re very clear that it should be the individual’s choice about whether he or she wants to speak out or not, but some people … need a professional to help them think those issues through,” Tchen said. “‘What will happen if I speak out? How do I manage the fallout and the blowback that may happen?’ And having a public-relations professional available to consult and advise them has been important.” While Time’s Up isn’t yet ready to announce high-profile cases it has taken on, Tchen said, announcements will be coming shortly.
Celebrities both originated Time’s Up and became its key drivers, Tchen said, praising famous women for driving change around not just a handful of harassers or companies, but the entertainment industry at large and lower-wage workers in other sectors. “The Hollywood women were very clear from day one that they needed this to be about more than themselves,” she said. “They recognized that they actually have a very privileged position and voice.” Sarah Jessica Parker talked Time’s Up with Tchen at the Wall Street Journal’s Future of Everything Festival this month, for example, while Jurnee Smollett-Bell did the same at the United State of Women Summit. Actresses like Ashley Judd, Amber Tamblyn and Julianne Moore, meanwhile, joined Kaplan and Graves last month at the Tribeca Film Festival’s inaugural Time’s Up event.
“The women who are celebrities have come to this understanding that their celebrity gives them a platform and an ability to draw attention to an issue, and they’ve been very intentional about how they use that to support low-income women who wouldn’t otherwise get that attention,” Tchen said. “I give them enormous credit for doing that.”
Though sexual harassment has entered the national conversation in decades past — most notably when Anita Hill accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas during his 1991 confirmation hearing of sexual harassment — the present dialogue on sexual misconduct has taken a stronger hold because of its celebrity backing, Tchen said.
“As incredibly brave and articulate as Anita Hill was testifying, women didn’t know who she was,” she said. But “we all think we know these celebrities. We all watch ‘Sex and the City’; we all think we know Sarah Jessica Parker; we think she’s our girlfriend.” To see folks like Parker, Natalie Portman, Ava DuVernay and Kerry Washington speaking out about such injustices, she added, “touches (people) in a different way.”
There’s also today’s social-media signal boost. “If a woman who had experienced sexual harassment 20 years ago was moved by Anita Hill’s testimony to reveal that she also had experienced sexual harassment, what would she do? She’d tell 10 friends, and that’s where it would stop, right?” Tchen said. “Now she can post it on Facebook, and it becomes part of this movement around the world where millions and millions of people see it and can join in.”
The scourge of sexual harassment has lingered this long because it has largely “existed in the shadows,” Tchen added, pointing out that around three out of four people who experience harassment don’t report it, and around 75% of employees who do report workplace mistreatment say they faced retaliation. “The fear and the reality of repercussions if you speak out are real, and we’re at a remarkable moment where people nonetheless have had the courage and have felt the support of being able to speak out,” Tchen said. “I think it’s in large part because celebrities who are familiar to them have taken that on themselves and been courageous, and that’s given courage to your average worker to do the same.”
Gender and diversity issues aren’t just a human-resources concern, said Tchen, who spearheaded her firm Buckley Sandler’s Workplace Cultural Compliance Practice — rather, the C-suite and boardroom need to worry about and invest in solutions from the top down.
“Increasingly in this economy these days, your talent and your workforce is one of your greatest resources. It’s going to be how you’re going to grow your business; it’s going to be how you’re going to differentiate yourself; it’s going to be how you can make your company successful in appealing to a consumer public that is increasingly diverse itself,” she said. “Companies now need to see these issues as core business issues in a way that has never happened before.”
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