Building on #MeToo, Foundations Look to Change Workplaces in the U.S. and Around the World



Feeling safe at work is not something many people, especially women, can take for granted—a fact strongly tied to men’s tendency to mistreat women in many cultures. Women’s safety at work in the U.S. and around the world is the initial focus of a new philanthropic collaborative that brings together 11 funders and “at least” $5 million annually in grants to an initial five-year commitment tentatively named the Collaborative Fund for Women's Safety and Dignity. The Ford Foundation, Open Society Foundations (OSF), NoVo Foundation, Kapor Center, Unbound Philanthropy, Nathan Cummings Foundation, Conrad Hilton Foundation, the CBS television network (which has very public ties to the #MeToo movement through the alleged misconduct of its former chief executive, Leslie Moonves, and their related philanthropy), and three anonymous foundations are all on board. The fund will be housed at Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors and launches with more than $20 million in initial commitments.

As research has shown and the #MeToo movement illustrated, many women experience abuses such as rape, trafficking, domestic violence or sexual harassment within their lifetimes. Approximately one in four women (and one in nine men) experience intimate partner violence and about 80 percent of women experience some form of sexual harassment and/or assault. A great many women have reported experiencing workplace harassment—25 to 90 percent, depending on the industry and on how harassment is defined in surveys. While high-profile cases have brought media attention to these issues, we know that many harms go unseen, unreported or unaddressed, particularly in less affluent and marginalized communities and in lower-wage workplaces.

The new fund includes all girls and women in its purview—cis, transgender and gender nonconforming. It aims to elevate input from survivors and prioritize efforts led by women of color and low-income, indigenous and migrant women.

Kavita N. Ramdas, director of OSF’s Women’s Rights Program, tells Inside Philanthropy, “Women’s bodies have long been the battleground for equality, justice and freedom” within patriarchal cultures, and that “sexual assault and harassment in the workplace are a crucial part of this systemic problem.”

Funding to Keep #MeToo Alive and End Harassment

Translating early energy and activism into long-term changes in policies and institutions is a persistent challenge of social movements. The goal-setting letter for the #MeToo movement that was published in the New York Times in 2018 and signed by scores of women’s groups, progressive organizations and unions directly addressed this challenge. The early grants from the New York Women’s Foundation’s “Fund for The Me Too Movement and Allies” did, as well. And this new women-focused funding collaborative has a similar mission: to channel #MeToo’s early enthusiasm and power into stable, systemic progress that reaches more people.

This initiative launches during an era when about 7.5 percent of foundation funding goes to causes specific to women and girls, with less than 2 percent focusing on gender-based violence. Some of the other philanthropies we’ve covered that already address violence against women include the Avon Foundation, Ms. Foundation for Women, New York Community Trust, C&A Foundation, and the multi-funder FIRST Fund, stewarded by the Chicago Foundation for Women, among others.

More nonprofits and funders are now engaging men as central figures in promoting women’s equity and safety. We’ve written about several of these initiatives, including A Call to Men, which runs programs to help men develop healthy perspectives and behaviors toward women—the New York Women’s Foundation and NoVo are notable backers of this program. The Chicago Foundation for Women’s Champions of Change initiative for male leaders is another example. We’ve also reported on rigid gender norms for men and women that are linked to various unhealthy attitudes and gender-based violence.

The new funding group aims to increase women’s safety in every work environment with five general goals or focuses: policy advocacy, narrative and culture change, organizing and civic engagement, leadership development, and convening and peer learning. It mentions upholding the International Labour Organization (ILO) standard on violence at work as one potential goal.

The collaborative will also create a communications hub that features coordinated messaging, “survivor-centered storytelling, art and media-based strategies, spokesperson development, and digital campaign resources.” It will invest in feminist organizing throughout the U.S. and around the world and plans to “seed and scale” programs offering healing, political education and community building for diverse women. It intends to create and support networks of field leaders and funders in the U.S. and transnationally. Beyond this initial focus on workplace issues, the fund aims broadly to address the “root causes of the international crisis of gender-based violence.” It states it is “grounded in a deep commitment to racial and gender justice.”

Valuing Women’s Work

Women make up about 47 percent of the U.S. workforce, but about 58 percent of the more than 26 million workers in low-wage jobs paying less than $11 per hour. And 69 percent of the people in occupations that pay less than $10 are women. Women with limited financial means clearly have less leverage, flexibility, mobility and power to address harms and abuses against them. The new collaborative points out women are particularly vulnerable to violence in sectors like domestic and agricultural work, where they are often isolated and “invisible,” and more likely to be of color or immigrant status.

Hilary Pennington, executive vice president of programs at Ford, tells us that around the world, “Workplace harassment and violence is a direct result of power inequity, patriarchy and the devaluing of the work that women do… Where we start to see progress is in areas where women are organized and empowered to advocate for fair wages, paid time to care for themselves and their families, and the ability to report violence without penalty.”

Saru Jayaraman, co-founder and co-director of the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United and director of the Food Labor Research Center at the University of California, Berkeley, agrees with Pennington that valuing women’s work appropriately is a crucial way to protect and uplift women’s rights. ROC is a nonprofit organization that fights for better working conditions and wage increases for restaurant employees. Along with the National Domestic Workers Alliance, it is cited as an inspiration for the new collaborative’s work, and was a signatory of the New York Times #MeToo Letter. ROC United’s backers include the Ford Foundation and other progressive institutions like Kellogg, Surdna, Nathan Cummings, Marguerite Casey, NoVo and Solidago. Its One Fair Wage campaign, on which we’ve reported, is an important example of policy changes improving women’s work experiences, specifically in relation to harassment.

Since 2013, through One Fair Wage, ROC has advocated to end the sub-minimum wage that tipped workers still receive in most U.S. states, with a federal level of $2.13 an hour. Eight states (California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Nevada, Maine, Montana and Minnesota) and one municipality (Flagstaff, Arizona) have now adopted a full minimum wage for tipped workers. Voters in Washington, D.C. approved a wage raise initiative in 2018, but the D.C. council voted to overturn it later that year.

There are about 14 million restaurant workers in the U.S., and they experience the highest rate of sexual harassment of any industry at 90 percent. About 70 percent of tipped workers are women.

Jayaraman explains that tip-based employment, a practice taken up in America during the emancipation of slaves, places workers in an unjust and vulnerable position—one in which women are not only expected to accept harassment, but are often encouraged to seek it. She says many members of ROC report their managers encourage them to dress and behave in “sexy” ways to earn more money.

For example, a younger female member recently told Jayaraman about being grabbed by a customer. When she complained, her manager and co-worker, who had more experience in the field, told her, “Oh, you're so lucky to get it while you’re still young.” This attitude brings to mind the message we heard at IP when we surveyed development officers and fundraising consultants in 2017—unfortunately, fundraising is another occupation in which harassment is prevalent. One younger fundraiser conveyed that older women in the field seemed to think trading sexual attention for donor favor was par for the course. Though anecdotal, these stories tell us that the longstanding sexism of diverse American workplaces is being noted by younger generations of women, many of whom are not interested in carrying these traditions forward.

So what impact can a fair wage have on restaurant employees? ROC’s research found that the states adopting an equal minimum wage for tipped workers now have one-half the rate of sexual harassment in the restaurant industry, compared to those with the sub-minimum wage. This leads Jayaraman to conclude that wages have “the greatest impact” on sexual harassment—“it's the power that the wage represents.” Additionally, she says that for domestic and farmworkers, the higher the wage, the more empowered the employees, adding, “even for higher-wage women. The gender pay gap—that’s what this really is about.” Currently, women who work full time in the U.S. earn, on average, 82 cents for every dollar a man does. “The more an employer invests in a woman, the more they are going to make sure that she is safe and taken care of,” Jayaraman says.

Fair pay is just one way to place women on more equal footing with men and reduce the likelihood of mistreatment and assault. This new fund also seeks to support women’s safety through clearer and stronger standards and policies on workplace harassment and violence, evolved cultural narratives, intersectional feminist leadership and community building with an emphasis on survivors and marginalized women, and strategic regional, national and transnational collaboration.

As Ramdas of OSF tells us, “The #MeToo movement shed light on the decades of work by movement leaders seeking to end violence against women at work, but they simply need more resources to not only hold perpetrators accountable, but change the game.”