Politics

How Did Time’s Up Go So Wrong?

The glitzy advocacy organization posited that strong women could fix the world. They couldn’t even fix their own workplace.

An upside down Time’s Up pin on the lapel of a suit jacket.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images.

There had been no human resources department. No performance reviews, no clear paths to promotion. Morale was low, turnover was high, and confusion abounded. But there was a plan in place: After two years of operation, a consultant had been hired to nail down a salary and title structure, and to serve as a kind of human resources stand-in, despite not being officially staff. Then, in the middle of a presentation, the consultant accidentally put up a slide that revealed, among other things, senior executives’ pay. No one present managed to get a screenshot before she took the slide down in a great hurry. “Several staff requested that she make that slide public—just to us—and she declined,” one former staffer who witnessed the incident said. “That was so bizarre to me, for an organization that applauds companies for releasing pay data but wouldn’t disclose what their pay was.”

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This was Time’s Up. It was not, according to several former staffers I spoke to, a very good place to work. As one put it: “This is an organization whose No. 1 campaign was pay equity at the moment, and this was the only job where I experienced a pay gap.”

I learned about the slide incident when, in the wake of a major, public controversy that resulted in two high-profile, top women resigning from the organization, I started looking into what it was like to work at Time’s Up, on the ground, since its inception.

Time’s Up first came into being in 2018 as an idealistic response to the abuses exposed by the #MeToo movement. It was founded by a coalition of 300 actresses, writers, directors, and entertainment industry workers and, according to the New York Times, was originally “leaderless, run by volunteers and made up of working groups.” Before the end of its first year, it had adopted a more traditional leadership structure, hiring a president, and eventually building out a staff of about 25 employees. The organization was created to support survivors of harassment and assault whose concerns and careers had sometimes been marginalized in workplaces of all kinds across the country. The idea was that women would help women: Through Time’s Up, powerful women in different fields would put their networks to work in an effort to transform a society that routinely and without much thought sacrificed people’s careers to the whims of the powerful.

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One can see, in that formulation, how unlikely it was to work. Time’s Up didn’t quite assert that women were immune to the seductions of power and money. But it certainly presumed that people who had excelled at acquiring both could transcend those very human temptations in the service of a higher cause. The past few weeks have exposed the extent to which this particular theory of change failed.

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On Aug. 9, then-chairwoman Roberta Kaplan resigned after it was revealed that, in addition to representing then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s enabling aide Melissa DeRosa during the attorney general’s investigation of Cuomo, and defending Goldman Sachs Group against a claim it had covered up complaints of sexual harassment, Kaplan had earlier advised Cuomo’s office on how to handle Lindsey Boylan’s allegations of sexual harassment. (In a letter announcing her resignation, Kaplan said she had “reluctantly come to the conclusion that an active litigation practice is no longer compatible with serving on the Board at Time’s Up.” She did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Slate.) CEO Tina Tchen, who, according to reporting in the New York Times, told Time’s Up staff to “stand down” when some were contemplating a statement supporting Boylan, stepped down herself on Aug. 26, after news broke that, along with Kaplan, she had provided feedback to Cuomo’s office on an unpublished opinion piece meant to discredit Boylan.

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The news has increased scrutiny of how Time’s Up operates as a workplace and how effective it is as an advocacy nonprofit. In the days after Tchen stepped down, I spoke to eight people with various experiences working with the organization, most of whom requested anonymity in order to be able to speak frankly. Though there have been some successes (there is broad consensus—including among those I spoke to—that the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, a set of funds housed and administered by the National Women’s Law Center Fund to finance the legal cases of survivors, is doing concrete, good work), most everyone I spoke with was skeptical that Time’s Up could be redeemed. “This organization was actually functioning exactly as it was designed to function, which is to protect powerful people, not to protect the survivors they abuse or harass,” one person who had worked with Time’s Up said. “So when we talk about it being dysfunctional, I actually take exception. This embrace of the powerful is embedded in the DNA of the organization, and Tina stepping down doesn’t actually mean anything, because you’ve still got a board full of elite, top-of-their-industry women who are power players.”

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That may be changing. On Sept. 4, the organization published a statement saying the entire Time’s Up board would be resigning over the course of the next 30 days. On Sept. 13, it was announced that a consultant has been hired to facilitate a “strategic and organizational review” of Time’s Up.

So how did Time’s Up go so wrong?

Some of the issues were basic: Time’s Up had no concrete mission. Everyone I spoke with, even some who’d enjoyed their time working there, described it as peculiarly rudderless. “There was a general feeling of never being able to cut through the confusion and changing gears and a lack of clarity around goals and what we were doing at the core. It felt impossible to actually advance good work given that setup,” one former staffer said. Another decided to leave when they lost confidence “that the leadership had the ability to figure out what the mission was and what the strategy was.” A third lamented that “leadership was very beholden to the board of directors or whoever in the outside world with power is affiliated with Time’s Up. I didn’t know how we were showing up for survivors or how we were even changing anything.”

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Staffers described a top-heavy culture they saw as stemming from the informal networking that governed the organization’s earliest days. “I think part of the struggle of the organization, which is maybe common to all startups, is it’s really tiny at the beginning,” one person said. “There were so few people that you don’t need actual systems to keep everyone in the loop. They just make decisions on their whims. And as the organization got bigger, it felt like that circle of knowledge just stayed with Rebecca [Goldman, formerly chief operation officer, now a senior adviser] and the people around her, and the staff kept growing but no one got moved into the circle, so you ended up with this big staff that was like, ‘What are we doing?’ and that information never left that nucleus of decision-making and relationship-holding.” Goldman did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

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The result, for staff, was chaotic. Policy priorities would emerge suddenly and be treated as instant emergencies. Staffers were ordered to drop everything, for instance, because friends of Gayle King’s in Hollywood had asked the organization to support her when critics objected to her asking about Kobe Bryant’s alleged sexual assault after his death. Priorities were put on pause to give staffers time to tweet support of King, issue a statement, and launch a petition. “I had very little insight into how exactly they would pick on a certain thing that they decided that we should do something for,” one staffer said. “Like, somebody in the network mentioned this story that was on Morning Joe, so now we have to post it on Instagram, like within the next hour.”

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Several people described a culture where some people were being contacted by leadership at all hours and even on weekends with demands. “It got to the point where, if I took an hourlong yoga class over the weekend, I felt like I had to let people know that I wasn’t going to be able to answer my text messages. Just constant communications of ultimately nonsense, because nothing that we did was very significant or important, but it was like constant emergencies,” one person said.

Some saw an excessive receptivity to parties whose priorities sometimes trumped the organization’s. In addition to the hyper-responsive-ness to the celebs who sported their pins at awards ceremonies and galas, Time’s Up leadership had strong connections to the Democratic Party. Tchen had previously been an assistant to President Barack Obama, executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, and Michelle Obama’s chief of staff. This fed a perception among some staffers that she was too enmeshed in party politics. On at least one occasion, according to former staff, Tchen said she didn’t know whether certain politicians wanted Time’s Up to be putting pressure on particular issues, which made staff question whom they were really working for.

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A spokesperson for Tchen issued a statement in response to detailed questions about her behavior as president and issues that came up for the organization. “As a start-up organization, TIME’S UP has been constantly working to build its own workplace systems, including working with outside expert consultants to develop and implement human resource systems for a small, growing organization, and providing benefits, such as unlimited paid time off, to provide support for staff working in a fast-paced, high impact environment,” the statement read. “After Tina Tchen became President and CEO in November 2019, she met regularly with and had an extensive dialogue with staff about their concerns as a group, one on one, within departments and with and without managers.”

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The organization frequently landed in some rather strange spots as a result of the muddled direction. According to the Daily Beast, a photograph of New York state Sen. Alessandra Biaggi—a sexual assault survivor, author of several bills that Time’s Up supports, and a vociferous Cuomo critic—was removed from the Time’s Up website because Cuomo’s office had requested it be taken down. But Biaggi’s relationship to Time’s Up shows just how confused and messy its internal operations were: The organization took her off its site even though it had also invited her to speak at an equal pay event. The event happened to fall on the very day Cuomo signed one of Biaggi’s bills into law. Cuomo’s office had invited several of the Time’s Up attendees to the signing. But not Biaggi. “I came off the stage at the Time’s Up event and one of the main women came up to me and was like, ‘That was great. Are you coming to the bill signing?’ ” Biaggi told me. She had to explain she hadn’t been invited, despite writing the bill.

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The entertainment industry also affected internal dynamics at the organization. When Oprah Winfrey pulled out as executive producer of a documentary about survivors of alleged sexual misconduct by record executive Russell Simmons, citing “inconsistencies” in the survivors’ accounts and “creative differences,” Time’s Up quietly backed her up. Winfrey still claimed she believed the victims, but when some of Simmons’ accusers asked Time’s Up leadership to sign an open letter saying, “We are unequivocally united in supporting the survivors in the film and all survivors of Russell Simmons,” they refused. The organization’s actions around the incident are frankly puzzling. After Time’s Up declined to sign the letter, former staffers told me they were ordered to send out a newsletter reaffirming the organization’s support of Russell Simmons’ alleged victims, but when they did so, they were chastised for mentioning Winfrey; leadership demanded that the newsletter be sent out again without her name. (The original newsletter, subject line “Your Bravery Makes me feel Brave,” said, “We mobilized to support the survivors of Russell Simmons after news broke that Oprah is pulling out of a documentary about their struggle.” The revised newsletter read, “We’re supporting the survivors of Russell Simmons—read our statement here.”) The Daily Beast reported that Winfrey donated $500,000 to Time’s Up in the aftermath; Tchen said the organization’s decisions about the film were made “completely independent from any donation from Oprah.”

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Choices like these did not always serve the organization well. When Esther Choo, a physician and one of the co-founders of Time’s Up Healthcare (an arm of the organization meant to combat gender discrimination and sexual harassment among health care workers), was accused of failing to appropriately escalate a complaint about sexual harassment against a co-worker known as “the TikTok Doc” at Oregon Health and Science University, Time’s Up leadership doubled down in her favor before a full investigation could be done. Kaplan defended Choo, citing the language of “sisterhood.” More than a dozen members of Time’s Up Healthcare, many of them co-founders, resigned in response.

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Some staff felt that these invocations of “sisterhood” and informal structures of trust also functionally replaced standard policies used by nonprofits to manage conflicts of interest. At best, this was producing uneven outcomes. Tchen had formerly worked with Uber, for instance, and although she recused herself from Time’s Up projects involving any companies she had done consulting work for, when a report came out on sexual assaults in Uber cars, staff were instructed to praise the company for its transparency. There was enough internal pushback that no such statement was made, and Tchen has denied participating in those discussions, but many felt that the culture among senior leadership was frequently more conciliatory than confrontational toward parties that arguably deserved scrutiny or condemnation. Tchen was sufficiently aware that Cuomo’s office was a difficult workplace to push for DeRosa to head up an investigation into the “workplace culture” there, for instance, but Time’s Up still ended up praising Andrew Cuomo for signing bills for sexual assault survivors. It also praised Michael Bloomberg for releasing certain employees from nondisclosure agreements (even though the Daily Beast reported that staff were instructed not to tweet support of Elizabeth Warren after she criticized Michael Bloomberg’s use of them in a debate—and this from an organization that had named the elimination of NDAs as one of its missions).

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In May 2019, Kaplan and Tchen launched a for-profit venture called HABIT Advisors dedicated to advising companies on how to reduce sexual harassment and foster better workplaces. HABIT advertised itself as “a new approach to workplace training, founded by leaders in the #MeToo movement and the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund.” Some objected to the references to Time’s Up on the HABIT Advisors webpage for ethical reasons and looked askance at plans to build a similar for-profit corporate arm called Time’s Forward for Time’s Up. In response to questions about HABIT and Tchen’s involvement, which she has tweeted about, Tchen’s spokesperson said, “There is no relationship between TIME’S UP, and Habit, which was a training business started by Buckley LLP, the law firm Tina worked for, and Kaplan Hecker & Fink, before Tina became CEO of TIME’S UP. After Tina became CEO, she ceased any active involvement with Habit, and has no knowledge of current activities of Habit.” When asked why Tchen was listed on HABIT’s website alongside Kaplan as the two “principals” running the organization through August of 2021, the spokesperson said, “Tina had no active involvement with habit after 11/19 and can’t speak to what was on the website after that date.”

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Text says, "Experts in the field. Led by nationally-recognized champions in the #MeToo movement and Time's Up Legal Defense Fund" next to a photo of two women in black.
The HABIT website, as captured by the Wayback Machine in August 2021, featuring a photo of Roberta Kaplan and Tina Tchen. Screenshot

Concerns about conflicts of interest were not allayed when Time’s Up held a retreat in New York in December 2019. Staffers were surprised to receive a sexual harassment training that several described as “rudimentary” at the retreat from none other than HABIT Advisors. (Tchen told the Daily Beast she did not know whether HABIT was compensated for the training.)

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When concrete efforts were made to address specific societal issues—the pay gap, say—some described the strategies leadership came up with as tone-deaf. One staffer told me she was horrified to discover that Time’s Up had decided to address low pay for Latina workers by partnering with luxury brand Tory Burch to honor Equal Pay Day with a pendant featuring “a faux Susan B Anthony coin dipped 52 percent in gold to represent the lowest amount Latina women receive on the dollar.” The proceeds of the pendants would be split 50/50 between Time’s Up and the Tory Burch Foundation; if all 2,400 units sold out, Time’s Up would get $60,000. Junior staff objected so vociferously that plans for the pendant were canceled. (It was not the first pendant.)

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Internal pay disparities caused issues as well—especially when staffers found out, thanks to a disclosure on a 990 tax form, that former CEO Lisa Borders had been paid well over $500,000 by the organization, despite only serving as CEO for a few months. “Look, corporate America is one thing, CEOs get the golden parachute all the time,” one former staffer told me. “But this is a nonprofit. It launched on a GoFundMe. It was appalling.” (It’s not unheard of in the nonprofit world, to be clear.)

In mid-2020, 14 members of the approximately 25-person staff started meeting on the weekends to put together a letter enumerating their concerns about their workplace. They met with Tchen in June of that year to discuss the letter. Among the issues discussed were alleged microaggressions toward women of color including some “awkward tokenizing moments.” One senior executive was described as referring to a potential hire who belonged to a minority group as “intersectional,” saying, “She checks off all the boxes. She’s Jewish, she’s Black, and she’s queer.” Some said they did not feel safe reporting issues to the human resources consultant, since anonymity could not be guaranteed. Other concerns included a lack of transparency in decision-making, staff feeling siloed, a sense that junior staff “weren’t culturally allowed” to speak to certain members of leadership, and problems that arose between direct reports and their managers being solved by offering “coaching” to the direct reports—and not the managers. One person who was present at the meeting recalled another saying, “ ‘I’ve never worked at a workplace where so many people have called me crying.’ That resonated with me because I also had cried with my entire team, like, several times.” They didn’t come away from the meeting thinking much would change—Tchen promised to get coaching for the human resources consultant, for example. (A spokesperson for Tchen said of these events: “To the extent staff raised questions about the theory of change and goals in the spring of 2020, Tina initiated an extensive process with staff, led by an outside expert consultant identified by staff, to examine the organizations, mission, goals and objectives.”)

The irony is that workplace culture, tone, and ethical leadership were what Time’s Up was supposed to have expertise in. The website for HABIT Advisors, for example (which appears to have been taken down), said, “We believe that the tone at the top of an organization plays the most crucial role in setting a company’s culture.” It also said, “The behavior bar set by the law—and the processes to enforce those laws—do not address the many behaviors, even the micro-aggressions, that contribute to a toxic work environment.” And yet, so many people who worked for Time’s Up described it as “a classic toxic work environment.” Employees told me they were advised to watch their tone, say thank you, ask fewer questions. “It just seemed like the Twilight Zone,” one person said. “This is the stuff in a male-dominated workplace that women go through all the time, why we can’t get ahead.”

But maybe none of this is that surprising. As one former staffer put it of the powerful women at the top of Time’s Up: “I think they overcame a lot in their careers and ‘beat the patriarchy’—but learned all the tricks of the trade.”

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