President and CEO Tina Tchen on supporting survivors
This month, we’re spotlighting trailblazers focused on improving our workplaces. Next up? The woman at the forefront of fighting sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace. Meet Tina Tchen — the President and CEO of the TIME’S UP Foundation and TIME’S UP Now. She told us about the organization’s hard-fought legal battles, and offered up some advice for anyone trying to rewrite rules around workplace culture.
Wake-Up Call: Tina, you co-founded the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund in 2017, around the time that the #MeToo movement reignited. Can you take us through the early days of starting the Legal Defense fund, and why it’s been able to be a valuable resource in the fight to end workplace harassment and abuse?
Tina Tchen: TIME’S UP really came together organically in the fall of 2017. Women in the entertainment industry came together as new reporting revealed the shared pain they had been experiencing for years in isolation. To their great credit, they very quickly talked about how they could turn their pain into action, to combat sexual harassment everywhere, support survivors, especially low-income workers, and create workplaces that are safe and equitable for everyone.
During that time, it became clear that one of the things survivors needed was access to legal services — as women spoke up, some of the powerful men who were being named publicly started to sue for defamation — an often-used tactic to threaten and silence survivors. We also learned that even though there are employment lawyers who will file claims on behalf of victims of workplace sexual harassment, that doesn’t happen for low-wage workers — their wages are so low, any recovery in a sexual harassment case will also be low, and therefore, lawyers couldn’t afford to bring their cases. What we needed to do was create a legal defense fund to support these survivors and send a signal to perpetrators that the old tactics of silencing those who speak out will no longer work.
Setting up a national resource for survivors across the country to get legal and public relations support had never been done before, and so, we are very fortunate that the National Women’s Law Center, led by Fatima Goss Graves, stepped up to house and administer the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, while Hilary Rosen, Robbie Kaplan, and I worked to develop this new idea.
We officially launched TIME’S UP on January 1, 2018, with a full-page open letter published in the New York Times. In the letter, we called on the women walking the red carpet at the Golden Globes to wear black as a sign of protest and solidarity and donate to the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund through our GoFundMe campaign. We could never have predicted the response: the campaign raised more money than any other GoFundMe Campaign in history — raising more than $24 million in the first year alone, 100 percent of which went to the Legal Defense Fund.
Two years later, the phones are still ringing off the hook from women and men looking for resources and support. The TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund has connected more than 4,000 people to our network of over 700 attorneys to provide legal support to address sexual harassment and discrimination at work. Three-quarters of the requests for help we receive come from women with low incomes, nearly 40 percent are women of color, and nearly 10 percent identify as LGBTQIA+.
What are some of the major legal wins that the Legal Defense Fund has seen so far?
There are too many stories to mention here, but I often think back to one of our very first cases — that was from Malin DeVoue, who at 27 was fired as head cook at a Philadelphia hotel after complaining that the hotel’s chief engineer was sexually harassing her. She was so moved by Oprah Winfrey’s rousing speech at the Golden Globes that she went online, submitted her story to the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, and pursued justice for the harassment and retaliation she experienced. Her quote when asked about getting support from us, was “I feel brave now,” which is exactly what we set up the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund to do: to give courage and support to survivors who are taking the brave step to speak out and seek justice.
Now, you’re the president and CEO of TIME’S UP. What are some of the main initiatives that you are focused on at the moment?
First and foremost, we want to continue to provide support to survivors of sexual trauma — by not only expanding the work of the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund, but also showing solidarity with survivors everywhere and working to combat the rape myths that allow sexual violence to thrive. Many survivors have had an emotional start to the year, with these issues continuing to dominate headlines, whether because of the second “Surviving R Kelly” documentary, the Harvey Weinstein trial, the stories of Russell Simmons survivors, or the discourse surrounding the 2020 election.
Building on the cultural zeitgeist of this moment, we are also working to engage, educate, and activate people in key industries — including health care, advertising, and entertainment — to fight for safety and equity in their workplaces by being disruptors within their own industries. For example, we worked with the Annenberg Inclusion Initiative at USC and launched several groundbreaking campaigns to shift the gatekeepers of culture, so they better represent the population. Just this month, we released a public service announcement and complimentary resources to highlight the on-set careers in film and television, and we already released the TIME’S UP’S Guide to Working in Entertainment to ensure workers in entertainment know their rights and options, no matter what job they have in the industry.
Our work is also fueled by data and research from TIME’S UP’s Impact Lab, the research and policy arm of TIME’S UP. The Impact Lab will be developing practical resources for business leaders and policy makers to use to address gender-based harassment and discrimination and enact policies that promote safe and equitable workplaces.
Lastly, in this historic election year, voters deserve to know where the candidates stand on issues affecting women at work. Since June 2019, we have called on the debate moderators to ask questions on sexual harassment, paid leave, pay equity, and childcare — issues that have rarely — if ever — been asked on the debate stage. And last month, TIME’S UP Now partnered with Fortune for an unprecedented digital presidential candidate forum on issues related to gender equity and working families. We’ll continue to use our platform to elevate these critical issues, so that the presidential candidates put them front and center — right where they belong.
Long before TIME’S UP, you worked as the Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama. How does your time in White House help inform the work you’re doing today?
I was really privileged to work in the Obama Administration, where I served as Chief of Staff to the First Lady and executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls. I helped lead the first-ever White House Summit on Working Families, worked hard on policies to promote equal pay, and helped form the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault.
In many ways, all of these experiences prepared me for my role at TIME’S UP — an organization that is laser-focused on ensuring work is safe, fair, and dignified for everyone, everywhere.
Likewise, you were an attorney for much of your career, advising some of the biggest companies in the world on business matters — including workplace issues. What are some of the biggest lessons from that time that you have taken with you?
I spent over two decades as a single working mom at a major corporate law firm, so I experienced firsthand the daily juggling that working moms have to do. I also knew I was fortunate because I had the means to have good childcare and get the support I needed. I often thought about the women working on minimum wage, with no sick leave, let alone parental leave, and how they managed the demands they faced.
That fueled the passion for issues facing working families that I brought to the White House. This passion was shared by Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor and chair of the White House Counsel on Women and Girls, who was also a single working mom, and the Obamas themselves, who were both working parents with young children.
One refrain we heard over and over again was from companies who wanted to address the needs of working families but didn’t know how to do that in their workplaces. So, when I returned to a law firm in 2017, I started a law practice on workplace culture, working directly with companies to make them safer, fairer places for women and families.
I learned that change will come more quickly as businesses see how fundamental these issues are to their success. That’s why one the fastest ways to build better workplaces is to work with companies to voluntarily begin to adopt changes. Demographics are changing — women are now the majority of the workplace and are now 20 percent more likely to graduate from college than men. That means that companies that aren’t hiring more women are not availing themselves of the most talented workers. Research also shows that diversity and inclusion is not only good for the U.S. economy as a whole; it is also good for individual companies.
TIME’S UP is doing so much to help improve workplaces. What advice would you give someone who is fighting for change at work?
My first piece of advice is to know your options. If you or someone you know are experiencing harassment or discrimination, you can contact the TIME’S UP Legal Defense Fund — they can help you figure out whether you can take legal action or provide other resources to determine whether reporting to your employer is the best course of action.
Second, get informed about state and federal laws — as well policies specific to your company. Some states, such as California and New York, offer protections beyond those offered under federal law, so it is important to consider your legal options under your state’s laws as well as those under federal law.
TIME’S UP has resources that can help you understand your options for reporting, how to prepare, and how to help a colleague decide whether or not to report and provide emotional support. But company policies can often go beyond the law in terms of protections for workers, so it’s important to understand your rights and responsibilities under your company policies as well.
Finally, you can text NOW to 306–44 to join our fight for safety and equity at work. We are fighting for systemic change — and that can only happen when millions of people stand up and speak out.
This interview originally appeared on Medium.com