Tuesday, March 28, 2023

Time’s Up Is Losing Itself to Conflicts of Interest

Three and a half years into Time’s Up’s short lifespan, the nonprofit is making more of a case for why it might not be able to achieve its goals rather than becoming a victory for women seeking safer workplaces.

It’s clear the organization started with good intentions. Springing out of the immediate chaos, confusion and fury of Harvey Weinstein’s storied history of sexual assault finally coming to light, Time’s Up represented the widespread urgency among women in the entertainment industry to do something — anything — to improve how it functions. The original founding statement, drafted in early 2018, is signed by over 300 women from across entertainment, representing some of the sector’s most powerful players. At the time, the organization was also leaderless, both because it was brand new and because it perhaps felt more unified, or at least more democratic, to present a front in which every woman involved was equal to the other.

As with every nonprofit, though, that idealistic structure couldn’t last long. In the years since, Time’s Up has hired staff who largely hold expertise outside the realm of entertainment. Its two separate boards — a Governing Board of Directors and Global Leadership Board — currently include women such as Gloria Steinem, Shonda Rhimes, Gretchen Carlson and Anita Hill, as well as executives from talent agencies, production studios, and publicity firms. At face value, this all makes sense. How are you supposed to make change in an industry without support and knowledge from those who shape it daily?

That question became far less rhetorical in the days leading up to Tina Tchen’s resignation under extreme pressure on Aug. 26 as Time’s Up CEO (the organization’s second in a row to do so) after text messages revealed her hesitation to support one of New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s accusers with what would have been a truly milquetoast statement. With Cuomo’s longtime advisor Melissa DeRosa on speed dial, the decision makers of Time’s Up found themselves torn between a bland performative statement and staying silent altogether. That they chose the latter option is disappointing, but neither option is true to the ostensible purpose of Time’s Up to hold powerful abusers’ feet to the fire, no matter who, no matter what.

Appearing to take an accusation of sexual assault less seriously because it concerned a prominent Democrat ally would have been bad enough on its own. But an even more blatant conflict between the altruistic aims of Time’s Up and its advisors’ day jobs presented itself even before the Washington Post published Tchen’s damning text messages. Roberta Kaplan, both a Time’s Up board chair and practicing lawyer, worked closely with DeRosa on Cuomo’s response to Lindsay Boylan’s allegations and provided feedback to his office alongside Tchen on how strong a stance to take. Investigative journalism unearthing this direct conflict of interest, and the surreptitious road ultimately taken, isn’t just embarrassing for Time’s Up. It’s threatening to undo the trust the organization tried so hard to establish for itself as the preeminent voice for women’s workplace safety in the first place.

What Time’s Up is learning is that for as useful as it is to have playmakers in the mix, people in positions of power dealing with other people in positions of power often find themselves having to compromise or outright forget their values in favor of keeping valuable connections close. The phrase “quid pro quo” has almost become an unusable cliché at this point, but the principle remains true across the board. Too many industries (media certainly included) still run on the give and take of favors and personal relationships. At a certain level, no one — not even those trying to achieve noble ends — is immune. As immediately impressive as it was to see some of Hollywood’s biggest forces band together to form Time’s Up, such solidarity might have ultimately been unsustainable. Sure, everyone could agree that Harassment is Bad. But of course transitioning such a broad statement from a leaderless mission statement into a multi-pronged organization complicated things, especially when so many people involved have their own interests, contacts and goals to worry about.

Again: this inherent clash of morals and practical concerns is nothing new to the nonprofit sector, or really any company with vaguely altruistic ideals. But if Time’s Up is going to depend on its sprawling web of connections, it might have to accept that fact that sometimes, sticking to your principles might also require burning some bridges.


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