Women have long used word of mouth to warn each other about sexual predators, recognizing that offenders often target more than one individual. Lately, these so-called whisper networks have moved online and out of the shadows. Organizations such as the Silent Choir Project, JDoe and Callisto offer websites and mobile apps for survivors to report sexual misconduct and connect with victims of the same perpetrator, allowing them to explore legal options and come forward together.
Callisto launched with a focus on campus sexual assault. The San Francisco-based nonprofit has partnered with U.S. colleges since 2015 to streamline the reporting process through a website called Callisto Campus. Last year, Callisto began developing a version for the workplace after it surveyed female startup founders and found that 19 of 88 respondents had experienced unwanted sexual contact from investors. Callisto Expansion invited more than 1,600 startup founders to start beta testing in November. (The nonprofit declined to identify the founders or their startups.) Callisto hopes to expand further this year, tailoring the paid tool to the needs of workers across industries, as well as in professional organizations and trade unions.
Callisto Expansion allows victims of sexual misconduct to create a secure, time-stamped report of their experience. The software prompts users to describe the event and identify the perpetrator, including name, social media handles and email address. The information is then encrypted and stored in a secure database that not even Callisto can access. If two users describe the same perpetrator—even years apart—they are contacted by separate Callisto legal counselors (working pro bono or at a discount), who provide information about reporting options, including filing a complaint with human resources or the police.
The system won’t flag a report unless there’s a match, and it won’t notify HR. But by keeping accusers of the same perpetrator separate, the system aims to prevent accusations of collusion between victims. Callisto Expansion also gives survivors the opportunity to come forward together. The first accuser often carries the highest risk of public shaming and workplace consequences, ranging from loss of advancement opportunities to termination. More than two-thirds of workers who filed sexual harassment complaints to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission between 2012 and 2016 say they suffered retaliation. But as the #MeToo movement has shown, that first accusation often leads to a second. And a third. And even a thirtieth.
“If there’s more than one allegation, it doesn’t guarantee in any way that you’ll be believed, but it dramatically increases the probability that you will,” said Jess Ladd, 33, founder and chief executive of Callisto. Ladd previously founded Sexual Health Innovations, a nonprofit that focused on technology and sexual health, which rebranded as Callisto in 2016. The name comes from a nymph in Greek mythology who became a powerful bear after being raped by Zeus. Ladd also created “So They Can Know,” a website that helped people diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases notify their partners. Callisto said it raised $2.07 million in 2017 through grants, donors and venture capital.
Numbers are not yet available from the beta workplace test. Data from Callisto Campus—which has been offered to 162,000 students at 12 colleges—shows that survivors who visited their school’s Callisto website in the 2017-2018 school year were six times as likely to report their assault to campus authorities than those who did not, and 15% matched with a victim of the same perpetrator, according to a Callisto report.
Actress Sarah Jessica Parker and Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund Leader Tina Tchen spoke at WSJ’s Future of Everything festival about how workplace culture and the media industry have changed in the wake of the #MeToo movement. Parker also weighed in on how her “Sex And The City” character Carrie Bradshaw would be portrayed today.
Callisto could face challenges convincing employers to adopt the tool. “An organization who wants to be as proactive as possible will embrace these [tools],” said Kate Bischoff, an employment lawyer and founder of Thrive Law & Consulting, a Minneapolis human-resources consulting firm. “I think they’re just going to be few and far between.” HR departments might be wary of using a third-party reporting system, she added.
To prevent employers from adopting the tool as a cosmetic solution, Callisto plans to require companies to agree to a few rules, including onboarding new hires into the system during training and evaluating the system’s effectiveness over time. The presence of a tool like Callisto’s could also serve as a deterrent to potential predators, Bischoff said. “The worst harassers out there are taking note,” she added. “And they are not first-timers.”
Corrections & Amplifications
Callisto Campus users’ time-stamped reports can be used to file formal complaints years down the road, even if they don’t match with other users. An earlier version of this article incorrectly implied that this was also possible with Callisto Expansion. (1/10/2019)