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The Fatal Elitism of the Time’s Up Charity

The organization was too bound by political allegiances ever to deliver justice to sexually exploited workers.

Time's Up CEO Tina Tchen speaks at a conference.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images
Time’s Up CEO Tina Tchen was among the organization’s high-profile departures in the wake of former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s resignation amid a sexual harassment scandal.

The Time’s Up Foundation—the star-studded nonprofit concocted and bankrolled by power players in politics and media at the height of the #MeToo movement, back in 2018—seems to have lived up to its name in recent weeks with a spate of high-profile exits. Board member Roberta Kaplan and CEO Tina Tchen both resigned in August, after it came to light that the two women played supporting roles in an effort to guide former New York Governor Andrew Cuomo through the sexual harassment scandal that ultimately prompted him to resign from office.

It was, as they say, not a good look: Not only did both advise the governor’s office on how best to handle the allegations and discredit early accusers, Kaplan and other board members continued to do outside paid work for Cuomo’s inner circle even after several of his subordinates came forward to share their stories. For many observers, Tchen’s and Kaplan’s actions demonstrated that their personal and professional interests undermined their leadership on issues of gendered abuse in the workplace.

As the attorney of one Cuomo accuser put it, “Kaplan and Tina were essentially working with the governor’s office against the survivor … if Time’s Up is going to do this to you, of course women are terrified to come forward. It’s the most well-known women’s advocacy organization, and it participated in retaliation.”

Just weeks after Kaplan and Tchen took it on the arches, the rest of the board followed suit, leaving behind a skeleton crew burdened with the unenviable task of shepherding the much-hyped organization out of its existential crisis.

As appalling reports of open secrets toppled predatory men from their powerful perches in industry after industry, the emergence of Time’s Up—along with its A-list donors and founders, who included Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon—was celebrated across the media. But just a few short years and a long list of controversies later, the organization seems less capable than ever of delivering the “safe, fair, and dignified work for women of all kinds” that it once promised. The reasons why mirror the problems with the #MeToo movement itself.

From the beginning, Time’s Up’s deep ties with elite circles in Hollywood and Washington were touted as its core strength: After all, it was blockbuster investigative stories about longtime film producer Harvey Weinstein and his years of sexual predation on young actresses that triggered a major cultural reckoning with all forms of sexual violence, particularly at work. Weinstein was widely understood to have weaponized his prestige as a “queen maker” to assault vulnerable women who had little recourse against a titan of the already-cutthroat industry in which they were desperate to find employ. The empowering by benevolent women at the same elite levels in the same industries, the logic went, could bring about transformative change across the workplace landscape. As The New York Times described the mission, “Time’s Up was built on a bold premise: Ultra-connected women would pool their access and influence to push for gender equity.”

The reasoning was flawed from the get-go. As the actions of Kaplan and Tchen now have made rivetingly clear, the type of elite professional women who drove Time’s Up’s mission often shared the same vested interest in their industries’ status quo as their male counterparts. High-powered men are able to abuse those below them with relative impunity for largely material reasons: Their victims are pressured into silence by credible fears of blacklisting or job loss, and their abettors benefit more from their proximity to powerand the exclusive resources, invitations, and perks it provides—than they would from confronting it.

For TchenMichelle Obama’s former chief of staffit wasn’t worth blowing up her cozy relationships with allies of the Cuomo administration over a few rumors of sexual harassment that could be more conveniently swept under the rug. Kaplan surely made a similar calculation when she opted to continue doing lucrative outside legal work representing well-heeled clients accused of complicity in sexual harassment, including Cuomo’s top aide.

And they’re far from the only Time’s Up members to be criticized for prioritizing self-interest above support for survivors: After organization megadonor Winfrey pulled out of a documentary project about sexual abuse allegations against record executive Russell Simmons, Time’s Up notably declined to support the victims in a public letter signed by a who’s who of women’s advocatesand cashed a suspiciously timed $500,000 check from Winfrey soon after. In 2020, the nonprofit’s kid-gloves handling of President Joe Biden’s accusations of inappropriate touching raised eyebrows, with some observers wondering whether Time’s Up’s mild response was related to the fact that several board members served on the Biden campaign.

None of this means that the well-heeled Time’s Uppers are uninterested in ending gendered harassment in the workplace—but they do seem consistently and conspicuously to draw the line at sacrificing their own power or connections to serve those just ends. In fact, getting more professional-class women into powerful positions is central to Time’s Up’s theory of change.

That may, indeed, reduce sexual harassment in elite workplaces, but the benefits don’t trickle down to vulnerable workers who toil far from the high-flung aeries of the professional class, and who face the same kinds of sexual intimidation and exploitation. A cynic may reasonably wonder if an advocacy organization whose goal is connecting women with movers and shakers plucked from top-tier Rolodexes should think of itself as a professional networking club, rather than as some ersatz crusader, aiming to materially transform the lives of women who aren’t anywhere near those elite spaces, and whose dignity threatens the comfort of those who are.

The #MeToo movement writ large often suffered from the same blind spots. Its selective focus on the potential for cathartic storytelling to take down individual abusers crowded out the possibility of building workers’ power to fight for structural change. Enlisting the top brass of the entertainment and politics industries reflects an assumption that workplace harassment is primarily a cultural issue that’s ideally combated through the endless raising of awareness in the hopes of shifting public attitudes. These tactics ignore the extent to which workplace sexual abuses are, first and foremost, a class issue.

The overwhelming majority of people who experience sexual harassment at work are, in fact, low-wage workers in precarious jobs, and much more likely to be working in fields like food service or home-based health care than in the aspirational professional fields where the high-profile downfall of a high-flying man might earn blockbuster media coverage. For the largely poor women who report harassment on the job, abuse is endemic for material reasons. For example, tipped workers put up with inappropriate advances from both customers and supervisors because pushing back could cost them both tips and good sections and hours, domestic workers have little recourse against harassment when working alone in their bosses’ private homes, and barely any of the millions of workers making near-minimum wage have enough of a financial cushion to risk rocking the boat.

While several members of Time’s Up did chip in to a legal defense fund that bankrolled lawsuits on behalf of working-class women, including McDonald’s workers, winning damages in civil court is hardly a scalable replacement for a world in which women have more control over their lives and working conditions. They don’t need saviors, they need unions. Merely “shifting conversations” about workplace abuseas #MeToo often didwithout bolstering workplace protections appears to have contributed to an increase of retaliatory firings in low-wage industries.

Ultimately, minimizing workplace abuse requires the willingness to wage class war: Low-wage workers need more power, resources, and social programs that support their basic needs, and that requires genuine downward redistribution of all sorts of capital. You can’t end sexual exploitation at the workplace on a wave of elite feelings, nor can you celebrity-endorse your way to justice. Genuine safety and autonomy of those at the bottom must come at the expense of the top. Time’s Up, indeed.