The Time is Now

Former Obama advisor Tina Tchen helps power Time’s Up, the high-profile movement fighting sexual assault and harassment in the workplace

By Kimberly Olson

In the wake of the sexual assault allegations against Harvey Weinstein in late 2017, a group of women working in Hollywood began talking about how they could use the moment to drive sustainable change. They set out to combat sexual harassment and gender imbalance in the entertainment industry, but as the conversation evolved, they realized that they could use their platform to support women in all industries.
Around the same time, attorney Tina Tchen, former executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls under President Obama, was in Los Angeles to help plan the upcoming United State of Women Summit, focused on gender equality. She happened to be in meetings alongside some of the Hollywood women involved, discussing the legal issues that women confronted.

“I was realizing that we needed to create a place where women could get legal resources,” says Tchen, who is now a partner at the law firm Buckley Sandler LLP. “Both for women who were starting to be sued by the powerful men they were speaking out against and had no recourse to get lawyers to help them, and for women—low-income women in particular—who had their own employment claims for sexual harassment but no access to lawyers to bring them.”

From those meetings came the launch of Time’s Up, a movement and organization to support victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault. It includes the legal defense fund Tchen helped to create, which would provide women in the workplace with legal counsel and also send a signal that there are finally resources to support these victims of sexual harassment.

A moment becomes a movement
The formation of Time’s Up moved quickly. From those early conversations, momentum grew and some of Hollywood’s biggest names joined the cause. On January 1, 2018, the collective—now comprising hundreds of women including director Shonda Rhimes, producer Ana DuVernay, and actor Reese Witherspoon—placed a full-page ad in the New York Times to officially announce the launch of the Time’s Up initiative. Beginning “Dear Sisters,” it was a powerful message of solidarity with all women—from waitresses to agriculture and factory workers—declaring, “The struggle for women to break in, to rise up the ranks, and to simply be heard and acknowledged in male-dominated workplaces must end; time’s up on this impenetrable monopoly.”

As a key part of the initiative, Tchen launched the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund (see sidebar), partnering with attorney Roberta Kaplan of Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP. The National Women’s Law Center, a 45-year-old women’s rights organization, became the fund’s administrative home.

The Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund is especially focused on providing services to low-income people facing sexual harassment. Two-thirds of those who have reached out for help self-identify as low income, including domestic workers, fast-food restaurant employees, and big-box retail workers. “Lots of folks, sadly, have come to us too late because the statute of limitations is so short in these cases and they’ve never had access to resources before,” Tchen says. “But many have said that, even if they didn’t have legal recourse, at least they were able to talk to someone who believed them and who walked them through the process, so they understood what was going on.”

Reimagining workplaces

While supporting victims of sexual harassment and sexual assault is a core goal, Time’s Up also has a broader vision to support initiatives—from legislation to corporate policy and hiring practices—that help women realize their full potential at work.

The time is ripe, as many organization leaders are eager to push their culture forward. “At the White House, a lot of companies came to us and said they got it—they got that they would be more profitable if they were more diverse, and knew they needed the talent that women bring to their businesses,” Tchen says. “CEOs who were meeting with us were struggling: ‘How can I do better? How can I address this?’”

Those questions were at the forefront of Tchen’s mind when she joined Buckley Sandler. “When I got here in September of last year, we agreed that we would start a Workplace Culture Compliance practice, which we did,” she says. “So when the Harvey Weinstein story broke, we were already building a practice on these issues.”

That practice is focused on helping organizations prevent, investigate, and address workplace harassment as well as gender inequity and discrimination in the workplace. “I come to this not as an employment lawyer but as a corporate governance lawyer, because I believe we need to treat these issues as core business imperatives,” Tchen says. “Your talent in this economy is the key to your business success, as much as the latest technology or piece of equipment might be. And we’re now seeing the downside risk. You have to manage this risk like any other threat to your enterprise. I think companies are really seeing that now.”

Tchen is especially proud that the organization is addressing intersectionality between race and gender head-on through its Women of Color working group, led by women including Ava DuVernay and Lena Waithe. “They’ve been connecting folks and are making sure that we pay attention to those intersectional issues—and not just race, but also gender identity and disability,” she says. “Our success at workplaces comes down to making sure that everyone can thrive and reach their full potential. That’s not just good for workers. It’s really good for businesses.” With women making most household purchasing decisions, and the buying public becoming ever more diverse, she says, companies with employees who understand those markets are the ones most positioned to succeed.

As organizations examine their workplace culture, men must play a key role. “Diverse workplaces mean we want men and women, people of all ethnicities, all gender identities, abled and disabled workers to be able to flourish together,” Tchen says. “We need men not to think that the best way to confront the current news is to avoid being in situations with women, because that’s not the key to success here. The key to success is having open and supportive workplaces and discussions with one another about hard issues.”

The leadership divide
One specific issue being addressed by Time’s Up is the leadership gender gap. In Hollywood, for example, 96 percent of film directors are men, as are 81 percent of board members and 76 percent of writers. The gap is especially pronounced for women of color. So Time’s Up has joined forces with 5050by2020 to achieve gender parity at all levels of the entertainment industry by 2020, and to push Hollywood studios and talent agencies to include as decision makers more women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community, and people with disabilities.

Beyond Hollywood, women also continue to face challenges rising up the ranks—in business and academia, in unions and government. Tchen says that removing structural barriers is key. “I’ll take my own profession, the law,” she says. “We know that women have been 50 percent of law school grads for almost a decade, so those women should now be making a dent in the partnership ranks of large law firms. But those numbers have just crept up incrementally, from about 13 to 15 percent. We’re still less than 20 percent of equity partners. The numbers are getting better at the start of women’s careers. But as they progress through their careers, they face those structural barriers of family and work, of flexibility. Our workplace rules are still set not from the turn of the last century but from the century before—the Industrial Revolution, punch in–punch out workplace rules. We can do better. It’s the 21st century.”

Tchen says holistic culture change must be spearheaded by the C-suite and must address issues ranging from family leave and flexible work schedules to recruitment policies and promotion, evaluation, and retention policies.

Having been a single working mother, she’s committed to easing the way for working parents. “Although I was a partner at a big law firm and had resources to take care of my kids, it was still hard,” she says. “I could only imagine how much more difficult it would be for someone without the resources that I was fortunate enough to have. So focusing on working families’ issues became a priority for me, and for Valerie Jarrett [former senior advisor to President Obama and former chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls], who shared the same passion as a single working mom herself, when we got to the White House.”

Tchen and Jarrett worked with the Obamas to craft a working-families agenda and held the first ever White House Summit on Working Families in 2014. “We had a whole policy agenda around paid family leave, as the starkest example,” Tchen says. “We are one of only two nations in the world that does not have some form of paid maternity leave. We’re the only industrialized country without any paid family leave as a national policy, so we are behind our global competitors in the global marketplace.”
They also championed the Paycheck Fairness Act, which would help resolve gender pay disparity by banning pay secrecy rules in the workplace, for example, and providing negotiation training for workers. When Congress didn’t pass the legislation, the White House modeled the policies within the federal workforce through the Office of Personnel Management and through executive orders.

Tchen says that modeling culture change can be powerful, whether it comes from the White House or corporate leaders. “I’m happy to say that companies are doing these measures voluntarily,” she says. “And state and local authorities are stepping up to pass equal wage resolutions and ordinances on paid family leave and paid sick leave.”
As Time’s Up continues to gain energy, Tchen says the future looks bright. “We’re at a moment where we’re having a national conversation that involves both men and women—across ethnicity and income levels—about our values and the kind of workplaces that we want to build. Once you can unlock someone’s economic potential, then whole other worlds open up for them. It’s good for families, for communities, and for the entire country. We can help set examples for the world as well. I’m very excited about the moment that we are in and the possibilities for change.” DW

Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund
When Gina Pitre started working at Walmart in D’Iberville, Mississippi, in 2016, she enjoyed her job. Then a manager began making suggestive comments and touching her inappropriately. Feeling angry and degraded, she began to dread going to work.
Pitre reported the harassment to Walmart’s ethics department, but following an investigation, she was told the matter was closed. Pitre earned $11.50 an hour, so attorney fees simply weren’t in her budget. But when she learned about the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, she reached out for help. The fund connected her with an attorney and is helping to fund her harassment lawsuit against the manager and Walmart.

Pitre’s case is one of the first to be backed by the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which offers legal assistance to women, especially low-income women, who have experienced sexual misconduct including harassment, assault, or abuse, or related retaliation.

Since the fund launched on January 1, 2018, more than 2,600 women have been connected to legal resources.
Meanwhile, 21,000 donations have flooded in to fuel the fund. The donations—ranging from $5 to $2 million—have come from men who want to support their wives or mothers, from numerous businesses and industries, and from all 50 states and more than 50 countries.

More than 500 lawyers have signed up with the fund to provide pro bono or reduced-cost legal services. In addition to offering legal support, the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund has PR specialists who help guide clients in deciding whether speak out and, if so, how to best share their story. —KO

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