The women behind #MeToo, 5 years later: Tarana Burke, Ellen Pao, and Gretchen Carlson on what has and hasn’t changed
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On Oct. 5, 2017, the New York Times broke the Harvey Weinstein story, igniting a global conversation about sexual harassment. In its aftermath, more women started to tell their own stories in ways both big and small, by going to the press to expose their harassers, or simply by writing #MeToo on social media—and often their voices helped push the culprits out of their jobs. Five years later, we spoke with women who played a part in the movement to take stock of how society has—and hasn’t—changed.
These edited Q&As have been condensed for space and clarity.
Longtime activist Tarana Burke coined “me too” in 2006, well before the movement went viral in 2017. In Burke’s iteration, the phrase was a way to support women and girls of color who have experienced sexual abuse.
Burke: I knew at the five-year mark, the question everybody would be asking is what has #MeToo done? People have a tendency to want me to pull out a checklist. I’ve been pushing back on that framing. It’s not so much about what has been done, but more so what #MeToo made possible. Because we actually live in a different world—the number of people whose lives have changed, the conversations that wouldn’t have taken place, the shift in culture.
I’ve had a lot of disappointment over the last five years, don’t get me wrong. The work was monumental in 2016, and the work is monumental in 2022 because the issue is monumental. But a path has been cleared because #MeToo went viral.
I don’t have to take as long to explain why this work is important. I don’t have to beg people to make space to have this conversation. There was a time when I had to literally beg people to get this issue on an agenda. Now people want me on the agenda.
Ten years ago, Ellen Pao filed a gender discrimination lawsuit against her then employer, legendary venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, which fired her a few months later. Pao lost a jury trial against Kleiner in 2015 but laid the groundwork for #MeToo in Silicon Valley.
Pao: I lost—but I feel like in many ways I won. Over time, the press and the public started to understand the problem, and became much more supportive at the end of the trial than they were in the beginning.
I have a lot of ambivalence about the long-term response to #MeToo. The accountability is still missing—all those people are back in the tech industry. It’s embarrassing. It makes no sense. But it’s happening, because the people who have the checkbooks and have the big investment funds don’t really seem to care that much.
There’s a segment of tech that is really dismissive of #MeToo, and they’re kind of digging in their heels, like a child: “Oh, if you’re going to push in this direction, I’m going to double down and push even harder. I’m going to give more money to founders who have been accused of fraud or sexual harassment.” It’s kind of sad, really. It’s like a tantrum where they’re pushing back in a way that isn’t in their best interests—but they want to make a stand, because they’re not going to be told what to do.
For decades, the R&B singer R. Kelly racked up accusations that he sexually abused young girls and women, most of whom were Black and brown. He escaped most consequences until after #MeToo went viral, and several of these women shared their stories in the 2019 documentary Surviving R. Kelly, from filmmaker dream hampton. In June, Kelly was sentenced to 30 years in prison for sex trafficking and federal racketeering.
hampton: I have organized against the carceral system, against our system of punishment, for a very long time. And I think it might have been even more meaningful if R. Kelly had apologized; if there had been contrition and restitution, he would have actually changed the culture.
I watched the Amber Heard–Johnny Depp trial. If I’m a young survivor, I’m watching how Amber Heard became this kind of shorthand—and this is a young, beautiful, blonde, white woman, you know? Yes, our girls got dragged and doxxed and abused by the public. But I think that the trial was probably the biggest public flogging that I’ve seen. And that is part of this about-face.
We are certainly in the backlash phase. It’s painful. I just didn’t think I would live in a world where Roe would be overturned. All of these things are connected; all of these things are about restricting the progress that women have made.
In 2016, a year before #MeToo went viral, then–Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson sued network chief Roger Ailes for alleged sexual harassment. Carlson reportedly won a $20 million settlement from Fox, but a nondisclosure agreement prevented her from discussing the specifics of her case. Since then, Carlson has become an advocate in the fight against NDAs and forced arbitration, and was a key figure in the enactment of a federal law this year that would nullify forced arbitration in sexual misconduct cases.
Carlson: A career that I had killed myself for, for 30 years, was coming to a very quick end for me, at least at Fox News, and it was not my choice. I finally decided if I don’t do something about this, who will?
I knew that I had to be incredibly public to get attention. But I almost wasn’t able to because I had one of the silencing mechanisms in my contract, which is an arbitration clause. The darkest day for me in planning all of this was when my lawyers said to me, you have an arbitration clause and that means you have no case. They said you’re going over to this secret chamber called arbitration. You signed it on your last contract, and it means that you cannot have your Seventh Amendment right to go to court and make this case public.
Had it not been for the strategy of my lawyers to sue Roger Ailes personally under a human rights violation law, my story would have never become public. I would have gone the way of thousands of other women over the last couple of decades who’ve been forced into arbitration, never to be heard from ever again.
In 2005, former Goldman Sachs vice president Cristina Chen-Oster filed a gender-bias complaint against the investment bank with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Seventeen years later, her fight is still ongoing. In 2010, Chen-Oster filed a gender-discrimination lawsuit against Goldman that now has class-action status, about 1,400 more plaintiffs, and, as of late August, a trial date—for 2023. A Goldman spokesperson says, “We look forward to vigorously defending ourself against these baseless claims in court.”
Chen-Oster: I think the environment is certainly better now. But Wall Street is still slow, frankly, to make some real changes. It’s still an industry that’s very dominated by men in leadership positions. It also tends to be very short-term-oriented, and very driven by profitability metrics—it’s all about how much money you’re making. So if there’s a choice about retaining an accused who’s generating a lot of revenue for the firm, then the firm is just thinking, “How do I retain those revenues?” That’s their priority.
It’s a very high-paying industry—and so there’s a real cost to damaging your career, and being ostracized. People talk behind closed doors—they tell you to be quiet, but they’re not being quiet. They’re not following the same rules.
We kind of knew at the beginning that it would be a long haul. Goldman has an enormous budget for legal costs, and they have an army of lawyers. But I’m not sure if I expected it to take this long. Just to put things in context: I have three teenagers, and my youngest was not even born yet when I left Goldman in 2005. At this point, I’m hoping this will be resolved by the time she graduates from high school. Because a lot of this is really for her, and for the younger generation, to make it better.
In December 2017, veteran investor Sara Tirschwell formally complained to her employer, bond giant TCW Group, that her boss had sexually harassed her and coerced her into sex. Nine days later, TCW fired her. Tirschwell responded with a lawsuit, which became one of Wall Street’s first public #MeToo cases. After some of her lawsuit’s claims were initially dismissed in 2020, an appeals court revived most of them last year. Tirschwell is still awaiting a court date. A spokesperson for TCW, which has maintained that Tirschwell was fired for repeated compliance violations, says it “has zero tolerance for any form of harassment or discrimination.”
Tirschwell: I honestly don’t know that I would do it all over again. I hate being known as that person. In my lifetime of accomplishments, it’s not my finest hour. And I’m not sure that it was worth it. Did my bringing the lawsuit force much-needed change upon that organization? Yes, but that benefits that organization. And I pay the price for that.
A few people warned me that I wouldn’t get a job once I filed this lawsuit. I thought they were crazy. I thought, “You don’t know how good of an investor I am! Somebody’s going to hire me. They know how much money I can make for investors.” Nope.
Did I think what happened to me actually taught women to shut the eff up? I do. They all call me. Nobody wants to end up not being able to find a job in their chosen profession.
On Nov. 1, 2018, 20,000 Google employees in 50 cities around the world walked out of the company’s offices to protest its handling of sexual harassment. Former Googler Tanuja Gupta was one of the main organizers of the Google Walkout and would go on to found Googlers for Ending Forced Arbitration. Google declined to comment.
Gupta: After the walkout, that’s when for me a lot of the organizing work really started. The organizing to end forced arbitration was far more draining and risky than the one-time walkout.
CEO Sundar Pichai had a hearing on the Hill, so I contacted Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal’s office, because she had been very vocal about opposing forced arbitration. She ended up asking the question during the hearing. I remember thinking, this will start to change things. Because now they realize we’re just not as afraid anymore to stick our necks out and get to the congressional side.
In 2018, Kathryn Minshew, cofounder and CEO of job search marketplace The Muse, and Hagan Kappler, at the time an executive at manufacturing giant Ingersoll Rand, both went on the record to Fortune, alleging that Chicago businessman Michael Ferro had made inappropriate physical advances toward them. Ferro was then the chairman of media company Tronc and a prominent private equity investor. Minshew had been looking for funding from Ferro, while Kappler was hoping to do a deal. Ferro retired from Tronc ahead of the article’s publication, and his spokesperson said in a statement at the time that he “has never had a claim filed against him nor a settlement made on his behalf.”
Kappler: I was surprised that this happened to me—a middle manager in a big, supposedly safe environment. I thought that more people needed to know that there’s this other part of business that is potentially dangerous for women. So much of business happens outside the nine-to-five, working with partners, working with advisers. And as an ambitious woman, you want to be part of all those conversations, yet you’re taking on a certain amount of risk in doing that.
Minshew: When I think about the things that caused challenges for me as a female entrepreneur, the story about an investor propositioning me for sex is the thing that elicits the most gasps. And it’s the thing that is most clear-cut and obviously wrong and inappropriate. But it was probably more damaging to my ability to be successful in the early days that a large percentage of people who met me, patted me on the head and said, “You seem like such a nice girl, but maybe not backable as a founder.”
Jennifer Mondino is director of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which helps defray the legal costs of survivors of workplace sexual harassment.
Mondino: Since we launched in 2018, we’ve received 6,000 requests for legal help from people facing sexual harassment in the workplace. About 70% of the people who reach out to us say they’ve experienced some form of retaliation after reporting harassment. Those numbers haven’t gone down—they’ve remained steady the whole time.
Meighan Stone is coauthor of Awakening: #MeToo and the Global Fight for Women’s Rights and former president of the Malala Fund.
Stone: What we saw all over the world was that the campaign truly became open-source. It wasn’t this command-and-control model. There was no headquarters. It was something that women in different countries made their own in putting hashtags into their own dialects, into their own language. We found that Chinese women activists were using emojis that represented #MeToo to get around censors.
We saw incredible creativity, especially in countries where women can’t be part of the public square safely, or legally may not have the same rights, or the threat of violence is too serious. The internet wound up being not a perfect panacea but uniquely tailored to help women find each other, to organize, and to find out that some of them had been attacked or discriminated against or harassed by the same men.
Tanya Harrell had worked for two years at a New Orleans McDonald’s when one of her coworkers began sexually harassing her. After Harrell started working as an activist with Fight for $15, a movement advocating for increasing the federal minimum wage and unionizing workers, she came forward with her experience. McDonald’s said in a statement, “Everyone who works in a McDonald’s-brand restaurant should be able to confidently show up to work each day in a place that is safe, respectful, and inclusive.”
Harrell: The past five years have been a long journey. I learned that these movements are so interconnected; the fight for workers is for both our wages and our safety and dignity. I’ve spoken to a crowd of 30,000 people and met women and men who understood where I was coming from. But McDonald’s still has a lot more to do. They haven’t instituted the sexual harassment trainings we’ve asked for.
Catharine A. MacKinnon is law professor at the University of Michigan Law School and Harvard Law School, who decades ago pioneered the legal claim that sexual harassment is a form of sex discrimination.
MacKinnon: The movement has definitively shifted how victims see the press. It has gone from the most feared reason for nonreporting to an avenue of relief, treated carefully, that is potentially preferable to the legal system. Inspiring some actual freedom of speech is part of the movement’s legacy as well.
In 2017, PBS canceled Charlie Rose’s nightly interview show after the TV host was accused of sexual misconduct. The network tapped legendary CNN anchor Christiane Amanpour to fill the slot. At the time, Rose put out a statement saying, “I deeply apologize for my inappropriate behavior … though I do not believe all these allegations are accurate.”
Christiane Amanpour: The news came out that Charlie Rose had been ousted. Without judging on his state of guilt or not, I saw a big opportunity. I went to my boss, Jeff Zucker at the time, and said, “Look, they’re in a bind at PBS because they have a one-hour hole every night that they have to fill. And here’s us with a show that could help PBS.”
The most important thing was that justice was done, that somebody who had been accused of unacceptable behavior was no longer in such a high-profile position. And a woman was replacing him. For that moment, that is what made me very proud and very satisfied.
This article appears in the October/November 2022 issue of Fortune with the headline, “#MeToo, five years later: A special edition of ‘The Conversation’.”