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INTERVIEW-Time's Up new CEO says bosses waking up to risks of 'toxic' workplaces

by Emma Batha | @emmabatha | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 13 November 2019 12:42 GMT

Tina Chen speaks at Trust Conference, an annual conference hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Nov 13, 2019, London, Britain. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Stringer

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'It's an age-old issue that's going to take us more than a few years to attack, but I do think we are in a moment where there is an awareness of the problem'

By Emma Batha

LONDON, Nov 13 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Bosses are starting to realise the economic and reputational risks of "toxic" workplaces, said the new head of the Time's Up anti-sexual harassment movement, with discrimination against women costing trillions to the global economy.

Tina Tchen, who served as an assistant to President Barack Obama and was Michelle Obama's chief of staff, said any effort to build fairer economies without tackling gender inequality in workplaces was "doomed to failure".

"Management need to be judged on the quality of their workplace culture in the same way they are judged on their profit and loss statements," Tchen said on Wednesday at the opening of Trust Conference, a two-day event hosted by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

"Sexual harassment is a symptom – it is a symptom that happens when our workplaces are fundamentally unequal and unfair," added Tchen, who took over Time's Up this month.

Time's Up emerged in the wake of the 2017 Harvey Weinstein scandal and ensuing #MeToo movement when women took to social media to talk about their experiences of sexual harassment.

The disgraced movie mogul faces trial in January for rape and predatory assault - charges he denies.

Time's Up launched in early 2018 backed by hundreds of entertainment figures including actresses Anne Hathaway, Charlize Theron, and Meryl Streep. It has expanded to Britain.

Tchen said the wider campaign for women's rights in the workplace had reached a "critical juncture".

"I've not seen a time like this before when so many people are having this conversation," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation ahead of the conference.

She hoped to see Time's Up's work extend to South America and countries like India and Pakistan.

"Gender discrimination really transcends all boundaries, regardless of geography, race, religion," she said.

"It's an age-old issue that's going to take us more than a few years to attack, but I do think we are in a moment where there is an awareness of the problem, and of how it is holding us back collectively."

She cited a 2015 study by the McKinsey Global Institute which estimated up to $28 trillion could be added to global annual GDP by 2025 if women played an identical role in labour markets to that of men.


Tchen, 63, who raised her two children as a single parent while forging a high-flying career as a lawyer, said it had often been a struggle to get CEOs to focus on issues like discrimination and harassment, but this was changing.

"Employers are more acutely aware of not only the positives of having workers who stay longer and are more committed, but of the downside risk to their whole enterprise if they have a toxic work environment," she added.

Last year Tchen co-founded the Time's Up Legal Defence Fund which provides legal and public relations support for victims of sexual harassment, most of them in low-paid employment. So far it has connected over 3,700 people to attorneys.

Although the United States outlawed sexual harassment three decades ago, up to 85% of women have faced it at work, according to a study by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

Tchen said no industry was immune, with complaints coming from retail to manufacturing, law and academia.

She was keen to see an end to non disclosure agreements (NDAs) - so-called gagging orders - used to muzzle victims of discrimination and harassment when reaching settlements.

"This has led to the continued silence and hiding of this issue," Tchen said. "That's why employers don't learn that they've got a problem employee."

(Reporting by Emma Batha @emmabatha; Additional reporting by Sonia Elks. Editing by Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)

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