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Flipping the Script

Anh-Minh Le | March 30, 2018 | Story News and Features Profiles

The first time that Kater Gordon found herself in the national spotlight was Sept. 20, 2009, when she took the stage to accept the Emmy alongside Matthew Weiner for outstanding writing for a drama series for an episode of Mad Men. Just a couple of weeks after she stood in front of the audience at L.A.’s Nokia Theatre—next to the AMC series’ creator, clutching the coveted trophy—she was let go from her job as a staff writer. Later that month, she wed Soleio Cuervo, relocated to the Bay Area and left Hollywood behind. Gordon settled into a fairly typical suburban life in a farmhouse-style charmer on the Peninsula with Cuervo, their two young sons and rescue dog Banjo. She cultivated an edible garden and set up a chicken coop that is now home to a flock of seven. For the most part, she avoided talking about her successful but short-lived career in television writing.

Then the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment stories came to light last fall.

Although she was eight years and 350 miles removed from the industry, Gordon would soon be the subject of media attention again. This time, on her own terms: On Nov. 9, The Information published a piece in which Gordon alleged that Weiner had sexually harassed her. During a late-night work session, she recounted, he said that she owed it to him to let him see her naked. In response, a spokesperson for Weiner released a statement that: “He does not remember saying this comment nor does it reflect a comment he would say to any colleague.” (Soon after, Mad Men producer Marti Noxon came out in support of Gordon, even invoking a colleague’s characterization of Weiner as an “emotional terrorist.”)

The incident described in the Information article, Gordon recently tells me, was not isolated; there were other remarks that she felt were inappropriate, but she didn’t know how to respond in an effective manner. “What was difficult for me in particular was that this was a person who I really trusted and respected; I loved the work that we were doing; and I was grateful for the opportunity that I had,” she says. “Because I didn’t know how to deal with it in the moment, when it seemed like a clear example of sexual harassment, it left me open to other comments. The way I felt about those comments was damaging, and I just didn’t know how to stop them from coming. So, I built up barriers and became a little harder. And it’s difficult to succeed in a creative environment if you do that.” It was, she surmised, “a lose-lose situation” because she didn’t want to jeopardize her job. “I thought that brushing it off and staying quiet was the only thing I could do.”

Gordon is not only speaking up now about her experience, she has sprung into action—launching Modern Alliance, a coalition that, through funding and collaboration, supports organizations working to combat sexual harassment. Drawing on Gordon’s background in content creation, the idea is to leverage media and technology platforms to develop targeted messaging. “What would have helped me in the moment that I think would also help other women?” Gordon asks. It is among the questions she hopes to answer: for example, through a cleverly scripted YouTube clip that addresses how to respond to sticky situations so that they don’t escalate; or how to avoid language that crosses the line—a la The Rock Test that Anne Victoria Clark posted about on Medium that advises treating “all women like you would treat Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. … When a woman approaches you [in your workplace], just replace her in your mind with The Rock. Then, behave accordingly.” For Modern Alliance, Gordon explains, the focus is on prevention. “Instead of just saying, ‘Me too,’ it’s: ‘Now, here’s what’; ‘Me too, and this is what I did about it’; ‘Me too, and this is what worked for me.’ So that we can learn from these experiences, and we’re not having the same conversations in 10, 15, 20 years.”

Gordon envisions partnering with organizations that have a specialty to capitalize on the good work that they have already done while also advancing their shared goals. She’s not interested in reinventing the wheel, but rather joining forces. As Gordon puts it: “We can come in and say, ‘Hey, we want to do this project with you. We’re going to lean on your research and expertise here, and what we’re going to do is try to make content that engages people and moves them in different ways and educates them, instead of being a boring PSA.’ I want it to be funny and relevant.” Although the initial emphasis will be on social media, the platform will vary depending on the demographic. For example, data shows that farmworkers tend to listen to a lot of radio, says Gordon, so a message to them might be in the form of a radio ad. To reach a male audience, maybe a popular athlete is approached about sharing a 10-second video on social media. Gordon is also interested in working with different types of media-makers—perhaps initiating a contest for film school students.

The first recipient of Modern Alliance’s funding is a collaboration between Futures Without Violence, whose mission is to end violence against women and children, and Butterbar, an agency well-known for its viral videos. If anyone knows how to take a typically dry subject matter—“Have you seen the government sexual harassment training material?” Gordon asks me—and make it compelling, it’s Butterbar’s Karen X. Cheng. A video she created last year for Credit Karma about filing taxes has garnered 13 million views and 88,000 shares on Facebook. The Modern Alliance effort will include messaging developed by Gordon and FWV based on research commissioned or curated by the latter. The creative execution and dissemination strategy will rely on Butterbar’s savvy with platforms such as Facebook and YouTube. Once the video goes public, the parties involved can evaluate and analyze the impact, and then iterate.

According to FWV Senior Vice President Rachael Smith Fals, the campaign could be deployed as early as this summer. “I think we’re on a fast track because there’s so much energy and enthusiasm around it,” she says. spirit about Kater—that she’s willing to take risks and do something that may not be perfect upon its first execution, but we can learn from it and make it even better.”

This mentality, which Gordon likens to a startup, is by design. “It’s really inspiring to see so many people take an idea that’s lofty and turn it into something tangible and oftentimes successful,” she says. “They’re OK with pivoting and finding a new path, and that’s great.” Alison Rosenthal—who worked with Cuervo in the early days of Facebook (where she handled business development initiatives) and is now part of Modern Alliance’s advisory group—agrees. “I think it’s an ethos of the Valley, where the startup culture is famous for: ‘Just try, experiment and see what works,’” says Rosenthal. “By being nimble, we can get to work and go about pushing the mission.”

Gordon has long
had a thing for words. “I always wanted to participate in telling stories,” says the Virginia Beach native, who was a theater and English double major at the University of Virginia. After graduating in 2004, she moved to New York, where she worked in costuming Off Broadway. During the down days from shows, a friend who was a production assistant for NBC’s Third Watch suggested she help out there as an extra PA. “That was my first foray [into television], and I loved it,” Gordon recalls. “It was really fun, and I was learning a lot.” She bounced around between lower-level assistant gigs, toiled in art departments, and joined the Theatrical Wardrobe Union and Screen Actors Guild. “Anywhere you could participate, I did,” she adds.

In 2006, she decamped to the Bay Area for a job as an assistant to a director and producer on Disney’s Enchanted. She started dating Cuervo, who, at the time, was a designer at Facebook. She decided not to return to New York and, instead, made her way to L.A.—where producer Scott Hornbacher, with whom she had worked in New York, had moved to work on Mad Men. Toward the end of the series’ first season, he hired Gordon as Weiner’s assistant. The next season, she shifted into the role of writers’ assistant and co-wrote the last episode of season two, “Meditations in an Emergency,” for which she and Weiner won the Emmy. In season three, Gordon was promoted to staff writer. But she was not brought back for Mad Men’s fourth season.

Although the press speculated about what happened—“Scandal: Why did a Mad Men scribe get axed?” posited a piece on Salon—no reporters reached out to Gordon before circulating news of her departure. At her wedding, which took place only a few weeks following her exit from the show, she remembers worrying about what to tell family and friends. Over the years, she got good at avoiding the topic of her past employment. Gordon was still hesitant to discuss her Mad Men stint even just a year ago. That’s when James Higa, the executive director of Oakland-based Philanthropic Ventures Foundation, met her. He was arranging a design- and culinary-themed trip to Japan in April 2017 for a group of 10; among them, Cuervo and Gordon. Before the excursion, Higa assembled bios on each of the travelers. Gordon requested that he remove the Emmy reference in hers. “I assumed it was because she was humble and didn’t want the fuss,” says Higa, “only to find out later, after she had decided to speak out and think about Modern Alliance, that it was really more the fact that she had a lot of angst and shame around it.”

Gordon consulted with Higa early on about the best way to structure Modern Alliance. PVF’s Designated Funds not only oversees the placement of money for donors, but handles “all the heavy lifting,” he says. That includes writing checks, as well as reporting transactions on the foundation’s audits and tax filings. As a result, he notes, “companies, organizations and founders can focus on what they want to do—which is figure out how to support the causes or people that they are really passionate about.” Higa, who has been with PVF since 2012 and was formerly a director for Apple Japan, was immediately impressed by Gordon and recognized the potential for Modern Alliance. “A lot of other organizations have tried to tackle the harassment problem with online reporting, education, lobbying and advocating,” he says. “She had a different “We know we have a really important issue and an audience that needs to hear this and learn from this, so let’s just get in there and try it. I love that concept: creating really high-quality compelling content. And it’s a unique approach that really takes advantage of her expertise and the network she has.”

And that network is indeed impressive, as evident by Modern Alliance’s advisory group, which includes not only Rosenthal, who also sits on the board of directors for AutoNation, but Instagram Global Director of Community Amanda Kelso, nonprofit consultant Peter Griesar, animator Chris Sonnenburg, and /dev/color founder and CEO Makinde Adeagbo. “We’ve got this group of really engaged individuals who come from all different backgrounds with great knowledge and skills that we can leverage,” says Gordon. Heather Stephenson, who is currently the CMO of home maintenance subscription service Super and previously founded green media startup Ideal Bite, is an advisor as well. She and Gordon were introduced by a mutual friend about a decade ago. But Gordon did not disclose her sexual harassment story to Stephenson until the Weinstein news captured the headlines. “Then, she pretty much hit the ground running,” Stephenson recalls. “She said she wanted to start an organization because this is ridiculous and shouldn’t be happening, that there had to be ways to utilize the tools we have here in Silicon Valley—the data, research and analytics, and the technology dissemination opportunities—and partner those with the storytelling prowess of Hollywood, with creative folks like herself, to be able to ensure that this never happens again. She immediately had that vision in her mind.”

Stephenson has been working in the startup entrepreneurial world since 1996. “I don’t know a single woman who doesn’t have some semblance of a #MeToo story,” she says, before relating an incident that happened years ago. During a conference in Spain, a male colleague leaned across the table, patted her hand and told her: “Why don’t you put on your fur-lined bikini and go out to the beach? We’re going to talk business now.” Stephenson, a VP for her company, was the only woman in the room who was there in a working capacity. “It’s that kind of stuff that’s so pervasive and insidious,” she says. “It’s the inappropriate backrubs or the offhand comments.... I’m a strong-willed, confident person, right? And I was 29 and had a series of successes under my belt, and I felt like I could stand on my own two feet. You take somebody with a story like Kater’s, who’s just a kid out of college. They have no power whatsoever in the power structure that they’re standing in. And something like that happens, and you doubt your own worth. You don’t know: Am I at this table because I’m good, or am I at this table because somebody thinks I’m cute? It’s kind of shattering.”

Currently, Stephenson
and the rest of the Modern Alliance advisory group operate on a volunteer basis. “We’re very much doing it because we see a problem and we feel like we’re well-suited and in a good position to help in whatever small way we can,” says Stephenson. With no staff or office space, a large chunk of Modern Alliance’s coffers—98 percent—goes directly to the work itself; the other 2 percent is PVF’s fee. The money all came from private donors, and while contributions are accepted through its website, fundraising is a lesser priority right now than a proof of concept.

In addition to the newly established project with FWV and Butterbar, Gordon is in talks with New America’s Better Life Lab, Equal Rights Advocates and Hollaback! for Modern Alliance’s next collaborations. Down the road, there may also be a campaign with BetterBrave, which was started by Tammy Cho and Grace Choi last year in the wake of Susan Fowler’s Medium post about the sexism and harassment she faced as an engineer at Uber. BetterBrave has conducted hundreds of interviews with experts, says Cho, and put together a Guide for Targets of Sexual Harassment. “During our research, one of the insights we found is that there’s a bunch of resources available to employers, but not as much information available to employees about what their rights and options are when they experience sexual harassment. We want to empower workers.” According to Cho, 85 percent of the people from whom BetterBrave has heard have suffered retaliation of some sort, and the financial repercussions are massive. “That’s part of the struggle that we often forget,” she adds. In the short time that Cho and Choi have known Gordon, she has been an important ally: She introduced the two women to Higa, and PVF subsequently made a $20,000 grant to BetterBrave in December. (The nonprofit kicked off a fundraising drive on its website in March, and a crowdfunding campaign is slated for April.)

For a storyteller like Gordon, there is no doubt some measure of justice in the fact she is finally able to reframe the narrative of her experience. “I want to live in this optimistic place where we all want to grow and change,” she says. “The more we can listen to others, the more we can engage in conversations and not necessarily be combative about things. That’s where we can see real growth. That’s my personal hope.” She points to the Dan Harmon case as possibly the best-case scenario after claims of sexual harassment arose: In January, the creator of Community publicly apologized to a writer for the NBC show, Megan Ganz, following a Twitter back-and-forth between the pair about his bad behavior toward her. In forgiving Harmon, Ganz referred to his admission as “a masterclass in How to Apologize. He’s not rationalizing or justifying or making excuses. He doesn’t just vaguely acknowledge some general wrongdoing in the past.”

While Gordon has no expectation her situation will have such an outcome, that doesn’t seem to concern her. “I don’t want to spend my energy and time chasing [Weiner] down,” she says. “I want to spend my energy moving forward. That experience is part of who I am, and I’ve definitely learned from it and am trying to use it as a positive. I’m really proud to be able to say to my kids that I did something incredibly difficult and stood up for what’s right.”

Originally published in the April issue of Silicon Valley

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