At 8:17am on Tuesday 2 January my phone buzzed. I had a DM on Twitter from the formidable Labour MP Jess Phillips. Did I want to join her in setting up a UK Time’s Up?
The previous day, The New York Times published an open letter signed by 300 Hollywood women. These women were actors, agents, writers, directors, producers. They included household names like Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington, America Ferrera, Eva Longoria, Rashida Jones and Shonda Rhimes. They included women like Ashley Judd, who were at the centre of the Harvey Weinstein scandal. And they were announcing a new movement. One that grew out of the global phenomenon of women speaking up about the sexual harassment they had faced and saying: it happened to #MeToo.
The sheer number of women standing up and saying ‘me too’ has made this a uniquely powerful cultural moment. It showed how many of us there are and how much power we have when we stand and speak together.
But the time for words has passed. The time to act has come – and women are calling time on men who think they can grope and demean women with impunity. Time’s Up has as its aim nothing less ambitious than the wholesale transformation of the workplace for women. Time’s Up for the unequal representation of women in positions of power. Time’s Up for unequal pay. Time’s Up for staying silent in the face of abuse.
Inevitably, there has been mumbling about what privileged Hollywood women know about feminism, about struggle. I have precisely zero time for this. No amount of money or status will ever ease the psychological horror of having your humanity trampled on and thrown away as if it’s nothing. Because that’s what it feels like when a man violates your body. And in any case, what is a better use for privilege (not to mention global fame and a combined social media reach numbering in the billions) than making the world better for people who aren’t as lucky?
Time’s Up started with another open letter, published in Time Magazine back in November, from 700,000 Latina farmworkers to the women of Hollywood. ‘Dear Sisters,’ it began. ‘We wish that we could say we’re shocked to learn that this is such a pervasive problem in your industry. Sadly, we’re not surprised because it’s a reality we know far too well. Countless farmworker women across our country suffer in silence because of the widespread sexual harassment and assault that they face at work.’ These women faced being fired and blacklisted if they fought back. They had to get food on the table, and so ‘reporting any kind of harm or injustice committed against us doesn’t seem like a viable option’. But they wanted these high-profile women to ‘know that you’re not alone. We believe and stand with you.’ And now, explicitly citing those Latina farmhands as inspiration, those high-profile women are standing with them. In a 21st-century reinvention of the famous Suffragette slogan ‘deeds not words’, they have pulled together a legal defence fund for women facing sexual harassment in the workplace that, at the time of writing, is nearing $15 million. Justice is about to become a viable option.
And it is clear that this help is sorely needed. According to the UN, up to 50% of EU women have been sexually harassed in the workplace. A US survey cited by Time’s Up found that one in three women aged 18-34 had been sexually harassed at work. A survey of women working in Silicon Valley found that 87% had been on the receiving end of demeaning comments by male colleagues and 60% had received unwanted sexual advances, with 65% of those advances made by a superior. One in three felt afraid for her safety.
But despite this fear, most women don’t report, because they fear for their jobs more. At best, they fear nothing will be done and, at worst, they fear reprisals. And all this fear has been exacerbated by the global uptick in casual, low-paid work — a phenomenon that has been disproportionately feminised. If your work is insecure, non-unionised, falls between the cracks in employment legislation and you’re struggling to get enough hours to feed our family as it is, how likely are you to want to be seen as a ‘troublemaker’?
In the UK, barriers erected by the Government have compounded the difficulties women face in reporting. Tribunal fees introduced in 2013 have now thankfully been ruled unlawful, but they left thousands of women unable to challenge their abusers in court for years. And, under the 2015 Deregulation Act, employment tribunals no longer have the power to include wider recommendations for changes in the workplace in their rulings. Which means that even if a woman does report, and does win her case, no other woman in the company can benefit. Things just carry on as before.
But no longer. Alongside the legal fund, Time’s Up is also fighting for legislation to penalise companies that tolerate persistent harassment, as well as to discourage the use of nondisclosure agreements to silence victims. The Time’s Up website has a section called Know Your Rights, meaning women have information they need to stand up for themselves. ‘We reached this conclusion in our heads that, damn it, everything is possible,’ Shonda Rhimes told The New York Times. ‘Why shouldn’t it be?’
Over here, Jess and I are working with a wide range of grassroots women’s organisations, on a homegrown version that will account for British employment policy and legal systems. We expect to be up and running with a UK-based legal fundraiser in days, and we’ve already earmarked legislative changes we are going to fight for. The path towards success won’t be quick and it won’t be easy. But before we’ve even officially launched, we have been inundated with offers of help. We’ve also been inundated with stories from women who have been denied justice. We hope soon to be inundated with money so we can help them. Because they are ready to take action, and so are we. So. Time’s Up, misogynists of the world. And not a moment too soon.