ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
#MeToo has now led to a new catchphrase, Time's Up. Three-hundred powerful Hollywood women have launched Time's Up as an initiative to fight sexual harassment and abuse. These movie stars and directors are reaching out to industries where women may have less of a voice like agriculture, domestic work and hotels. We're going to talk now with one of the influential women behind this effort who does not come from Hollywood. Tina Tchen is an attorney who spent years as chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama. And she joins us now from Chicago. Welcome to the program.
TINA TCHEN: Thank you, Ari.
SHAPIRO: Hollywood celebrities are good at raising awareness. Your expertise is in creating policy. So how do you translate the Oscars acceptance speeches and the red carpet interviews into something that's more than just talk?
TCHEN: Well, that's why we've created the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund. And that was what was announced yesterday together with the overall Time's Up movement. As an attorney, I, you know, was watching some of the stories that came across not just of the harassment that workers experienced but then the sort of legal bullying and harassment that happens afterwards where people are - have been silenced. Or people are even just afraid to come forward in the first instance.
And I sort of said, you know, we need to do something about this. People should not be afraid to speak out, should not be afraid to assert their rights because they're afraid of retaliation or because they can't get access to a lawyer. And we know that's especially the case for so many low-income workers, hourly wage workers, people who are in very vulnerable positions like you mentioned. And to their credit, the women of Hollywood cared about those women, too, and wanted a way to help out. And the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund is the perfect way to do it.
SHAPIRO: In many cases, the statute of limitations on these offenses is as little as 180 days. That doesn't leave a lot of time for women to get justice in the courts.
TCHEN: It does not. It does not leave a lot of time. And a lot of people don't know their rights. But then the other thing we've seen happen with the #MeToo movement is people have spoken out about their own experiences. And they've suffered retaliation even afterwards. So not all of these cases are going to be cases where people are trying to sue for damages or their rights. There's also people who need help defending themselves and defending themselves against retaliation. And I think just the fact that people know this resource is available - we hope will serve as a deterrent.
SHAPIRO: The Time's Up website quotes a survey that says nearly half of working women in the U.S. have experienced workplace harassment. So I'm imagining that an effort to hold even a fraction of those perpetrators accountable would be enormous. I mean, we're talking about hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions of cases. Is this effort really big enough to solve the scope of the problem?
TCHEN: Well, one of the things we hope to do with this effort is document and collect the data on how many cases are coming forward and where the need is. You know, we don't really know. So much of what has happened here, Ari, are people who are afraid to speak out. So I'm not sure we really know the magnitude.
Now, we've started out with a goal of $15 million to raise. And I'm happy to report I just checked the GoFundMe page, and we're at 13.9 million in just a matter of days. But we're going to need much more because litigation is expensive. Legal representation is expensive even where you've got lawyers who're willing to do this for pro bono or reduced rates because there's costs. And it - you know, it can take a long time. But you know, we've got to do something. We've got to do something that helps especially the voiceless have a voice and be able to get support.
SHAPIRO: The website goes far beyond legal aid. It talks about pay discrepancies, the absence of women in leadership roles, the under representation of minorities. Do you think there's any risk of casting too wide a net here rather than taking a more focused, narrower approach?
TCHEN: No. In fact the wide approach is what's critical here because sexual harassment, Ari, is just a symptom. It's a symptom of workplaces that aren't diverse, that don't have diverse leadership and diverse workforces in there. When you have a diverse workforce, you have less sexual harassment because people are working together. And they're working together in a place of respect for one another and safety for all. And that's really what we're all trying to work for through Time's Up and through so many movements. You'll recall that's what we worked on in the White House through the White House Council on Women and Girls.
SHAPIRO: That's Tina Tchen, former chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama, now helping to lead the Time's Up initiative to fight workplace harassment and abuse of women. Thanks so much for joining us.
TCHEN: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.