Just over two months ago, the people behind the Time’s Up movement in the US launched their Legal Defence Fund for all survivors of sexual assault and harassment in the workplace.

Since then, more than 1,900 people have used the fund for legal issues around inequality in the workplace, which includes promotion policies, pay equality, paid leave, sexual harassment, diversity and safety. 

Speaking at the panel ‘Time’s Up! Shifting the Imbalance of Power’, today (March 11) at SXSW in Austin, four women behind Legal Defence Fund gathered to discuss how they are changing the culture to stop sexual harassment in the workplace.

President and CEO of National Women’s Law Centre in the US, Fatima Goss Graves, said that while we’re years behind where we need to be, having sexual harassment as a featured talk at an iconic conference like SXSW is a positive.

For 50 years it’s been unlawful to engage in sexual harassment at work, and it’s a form of discrimination; but it hasn’t been well enforced,” she said.

Time’s Up gained its momentum after the watershed moment that was the Harvey Weinstein attention. Now, following #metoo internationally, #meNOmore in Australasia, and many other localised movements, Time’s Up has revealed the commonality of many harassment cases, but also the space to go deeper into labour laws. Time’s Up is not only concentrating on the gig economy and the entertainment industry, where traditional employment contracts are few and far between, but also on industries that are vulnerable like domestic or home care.

“We haven’t had a giant moment like the one we’re in right now,” said Fatima Goss Graves. “[…] It’s going to require us to go deep and really centre on the experiences of women of colour, and of women who are in low income jobs as well.”

Prior to the launch of the Legal Defence Fund, Time’s Up were thinking of introducing a bill that suggests training in the workplace, the group then decided they were thinking too small.

The Legal Defence Fund is open to women, men, and any gender identity (however of the first 1,500 calls the Fund received upon launch, 25 were men) and draws upon the expertise of over 500 attorneys who are taking on cases and multiple PR firms, who are working with lawyers to get the stories out.

Communications and political consultant Hilary Rosen, who is also the former head of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), said:

“That means when a plant worker in Lexington Kentucky is challenged by a supervisor, we’re going to go into that local community and we’re going to do as much as we can to make this be an important local issue.

“That is something that I think combining the PR and the legal really calls out behaviour in an effective way.”

The Fund has raised over $21 million dollars from the 20,000 people who have donated.

The donations ranged from $5 to $1 million, but as Hilary Rosen said, “it’s not enough” because perpetrators can wait the victims out with legal bullying.

Anyone who’s needed legal services knows that it’s extremely expensive.  […] We need to continue to grow the fund and recruit additional attorneys,” she said.

Tina Tchen, ex-Chief of Staff to former First Lady Michelle Obama, has seen the power imbalance in corporate law.

Tchen noted that just 6.4% of the Fortune 500 CEOs are women and there are more men with the names John, Robert, William or James in the Top 1500 companies in the US, than there are women.

“We haven’t made the progress. What I often say in this moment when we’re talking about sexual harassment is that it’s important to remember that sexual harassment is the tail-end of the process. It is the symptom that happens when you don’t have truly diverse work forces.

“[…] All the structural barriers like no paid leave, no flexible scheduling, no equal pay… we’ve got to break those down because when you have a truly diverse workforce that’s lead by women and people of colour in addition to white straight men and LGBT leaders, then you will have a workplace that’s safe and equitable for workers.” 

Actress-activist Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Friday Night Lights, True Blood, Underground) has been on camera since she was 10 months old; her first experience of harassment happened on set as a teenager.

Smollett-Bell described the Time’s Up movement and her involvement as both a privilege and a burden.

“In this moment I think we just all felt so empowered and privileged that [survivors] would reach out […] We’re in this together and the patriarchy will fall, because we’re in this together.”

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