Why Women Leave

Safety in the workplace and the message of the mammaries

Natalie Portman
Oct 24, 2018 · 9 min read
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Photo: Shutterstock

I gave this acceptance speech at Variety’s event.

We’ve had an incredible week at Time’s Up, the organization I am here to talk about. Because this week, we welcomed our first President and CEO, Lisa Borders, who comes to us after heading the WNBA. Lisa is a brilliant, compassionate and strategic leader with vast experience in business, activism and government, and we are so lucky and grateful to have her come guide our path.

I came to the first Time’s Up meeting, almost exactly one year ago, after the shattering reports by Megan Twohey, Jodi Kantor and Ronan Farrow were published about Harvey Weinstein. I had heard the stories but was horrified to learn the extent of his abuse. However, a part of the story I had never considered before was how many women were forcibly removed from our industry because of his retaliatory behavior.

The articles in the New York Times and the New Yorker, as you all know, detailed his active character assassination of the women he assaulted — telling directors the actresses he had abused, were difficult or crazy and not to work with them. Harvey’s lawyer, David Boies, signed contracts with spy firms to surveil the women who reported his crime — to try to make them out as whores, and track their movements.

He did this, as many harassers and assaulters do, to take power away from their victims, because if they have less work, they have less money, and then they have less power, and eventually they have less credibility and less reputation, and again, less power to get him in trouble for the crimes he committed. And it’s working! Harvey is STILL on the loose and the NY County DA Cy Vance just dismissed one of the cases against him yesterday. Harvey Weinstein, the man whose name has become synonymous with serial rapist, might not ever suffer any legal consequences because our legal system and our culture protect the perpetrators of sexual violence, not its victims.

As Jodi Kantor noted, Weinstein’s abuse was so pervasive, that a whole generation of actresses had been pushed out of our industry and had been deprived of decades of work and the payment that accompanies it. What other women in our industry and in other industries had been silenced and shut out in this way?

I had always wondered why there was still unequal representation in nearly every industry, and particularly in positions of leadership and power, when graduate schools have been consciously enrolling equal amounts of men and women. I wondered why do women graduate 50/50 from law schools and yet make up only 20% of law firm equity partnerships? Why do women graduate 50/50 from all business schools and yet make up only 10.6% of Fortune 500 boards and 4.8% of fortune 500 CEOs? Or that in our industry, women graduate 50/50 from film schools yet only 11% of the top 250 films last year were directed by women?

There’s a theory that’s often cited that women drop out of the workforce to focus on motherhood, or because the workplace isn’t conducive enough to rearing children. And I used to believe that too. But it always seemed suspicious as a reason — like a woman would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on law school, and all the time and hard work to graduate, and all the hours and stress to pass the bar, and then work for years at a law firm, and then give up her 6 or 7-figure job that she loves and has invested so much into, because she didn’t ever consider she might have to find childcare for her kid? A woman who can probably easily afford childcare? It was confusing, but I bought it, cause, well, I don’t know. I’m a sheep.

Now, I would like to dispel that myth.

First of all, there are too many women who either don’t choose to have children, do not yet have children, or who have grown children, to account for the gaping lack of women in leadership positions in almost every industry, if it was really due to incompatibility with motherhood.

Second, there are many professions that might be considered incompatible with motherhood that are nearly all female. Think about gynecology. Gynecology is one of the most time-consuming, emotionally intensive fields of medicine, and they are on call around the clock. Today, almost all gynecologists are women. And many of them have kids. So what is this oft-repeated rumor about women not being able to do hard jobs with kids at the same time?

In gynecology, there is uniquely a demand for females. Women are asking for other women to be doing the job — so that affects hiring. Also, women are the primary people the doctors have to deal with, so you have to assume that harassment and assault goes way down. If there’s a lesson to be learned from our vagina doctors, it’s that with increased demand for women, and increased physical and emotional safety on the job, women will flock to a field that is emotionally and intellectually intense, and also that is incredibly time-consuming.

Similarly, in our business, people make the argument that we see so few female directors, DPs, camera departments, VFX supervisors, stunt coordinators — wait almost every job — because set life isn’t conducive to family life. Well, what about the hair and makeup and wardrobe departments? They’re almost entirely female. They figure out how to work on movies and take care of their families, if they have chosen to have families.

It’s much more likely for a woman to stay in a job for her children than to leave it. Consider all of the women in the restaurant or domestic industries sometimes work many jobs at once, in order to support their kids. So let’s please stop saying that women are choosing to drop out of the workforce because of their families.

The rumor is wrong.

Of course, many women simply have a personal preference for being full-time parents, and that’s a beautiful and admirable choice — but not ALL of them. Sure, sets and offices and every workplace can improve A LOT when it comes to helping working parents, both male and female — allowing more family leave, creating spaces at work for daycares or preschools, creating reasonable work hours and post-work expectations so people can live their lives. But gynecologists don’t have longer maternity leave or daycare at work, and they’re a nearly all-female profession now. These are not the reasons women are leaving the workforce. Let’s be clear.

The reason women in nearly every industry are not represented in powerful positions is because women are being discriminated against or retaliated against for hiring and promotion. When they do get jobs, they are often being harassed and assaulted, and they are being paid less than their male counterparts — all of which coerce self-preserving women into finding safer options for themselves and different ways to feel valued. Many women are further oppressed by intersections with other marginalized identities — whether by sexual orientation, race, age, class, religion, physical ability — and are subject to multiple avenues of discrimination and harassment at work at once. If they try to report it, there is often a second harassment — their reputations are smeared, their future hiring is jeopardized and they are further harassed.

So that’s part of why our first action at Time’s Up was to start the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund with the National Women’s Law Center. Because women need to put food on the table. And in order to do so, they need to be able to do their work in a safe, equitable and dignified environment.

In its first year, our Time’s Up legal defense fund has served more than 3500 people from workers at McDonalds, to prison guards, to military personnel, to women in our own industry, who have faced gender-based harassment, discrimination, coercion and assault. Recently, our lawyers helped Melanie Kohler triumph against Brett Ratner and his lawyer, Marty Singer, who tried to use Brett’s enormous financial advantage over her to legally bully her into silence. Melanie did not have to retract her claims of assault against him. And he dropped his case of defamation because he saw that she could not be bullied legally just because he has hundreds of millions of dollars and she does not.

At Time’s Up we want ALL people — men, women and those who identify as neither and both, to lead the charge to make hiring more fair, make wages more equitable, and make the workplace environment safe and dignified for all. We now have Time’s Up chapters in tech, finance, advertising, journalism, medicine, and we have sister organizations among restaurant workers, domestic workers, and farmworkers — we are thousands of women across multiple industries internationally joining together to make the same demands of the world.

What can YOU do?

First, MONEY: You can give or raise money for the Legal Defense Fund.

Second, GATHER: Meet with other women and see what changes you want to make. Through Time’s up, or on your own, gathering has been the central principle of what we do that has created every action we’ve taken.

Third, LISTEN: If any group you’re in has people who only look like you — change that group. It’s an awakening to hear from women who have different experiences of marginalization.

Fourth, DEMAND: The women in this room are the most powerful women in our industry. All you in this room have the power to negotiate for equal pay, or grant equal pay, or popularize equal pay in the culture. Be embarrassed if everyone in your workplace looks like you. Pay attention to physical ability, age, race, sexual orientation, gender identity and make sure you’ve got all kinds of experiences represented.

Fifth, GOSSIP WELL: Stop the rhetoric that a woman is crazy or difficult. If a man says a woman is crazy or difficult, ask him: What bad thing did you do to her? It’s code that he is trying to discredit her reputation. Make efforts to hire people who’ve had their reputations smeared in retaliation.

Sixth, DON’T BE SHY: Don’t shy away from Consequences for those who abuse their power. Those who abuse power are not going to have a change of behavior out of the goodness of their hearts — they are motivated by self-interest and will only change their behavior if they have to worry they will lose what they care about.

Seventh, and this is a united challenge to everyone in this room: TELL A NEW STORY: What if we took a year off from violence against women? What if for one year, everyone in this room does everything in their power to make sure that all entertainment produced just this year will not depict a rape or murder of a woman. In the projects you write, produce, direct, act in, package, market, do not harm women this year, and let’s see how that goes.

I want to leave off with a reminder that our family of animals — mammals — is named after us, women, because of our mammary glands. Yes, the most remarkable thing about our whole type of animal is our boobs. We know that. Men know that. Babies definitely know that. In fact, at our first Time’s Up meeting, I was breastfeeding my daughter during the meeting, in a room that not only allowed it, but welcomed and applauded it. Anyway, our boobs are amazing. But there’s a message in our mammary glands:

Many men are behaving like we live in a zero-sum game. That if women get the respect, access and value they deserve, that men will lose theirs. But we know the message of the mammaries: the more milk you give, the more milk you make. The more love you give, the more love you have. And the same can be said of fire — when you light someone else’s torch with your own, you don’t lose your fire, you just make more light and more heat.

So my last challenge to everyone in this room, is to spread your fire. Use your fire to light other women’s torches and make more light and more heat for all of us. If every powerful woman in this room pledges to hire at least three women in jobs this year that women don’t usually get — directors, cinematographers, VFX supervisors, composers, stunt coordinators, board members — I mean almost all of the jobs are jobs women don’t get. Just pick three jobs you get to choose, and light a woman’s torch. The light will multiply and the heat will intensify for all of us.

Do all of you pledge with me?

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