In the late 1990s, Zelda Perkins was in her early 20s and building a successful career working in the London office of Miramax, Harvey Weinstein’s film-distribution company.
For some of that time, she was Weinstein’s right-hand woman: When the film producer was in Europe for about a week each month, Perkins acted as Weinstein’s assistant, accompanying him to film screenings and award shows, she said.
But Perkins’s relationship with Weinstein changed forever in 1998, when she and Rowena Chiu — a fellow assistant to the producer — signed nondisclosure agreements following Weinstein’s alleged attempted rape of Chiu, which Chiu revealed to Perkins the day after it happened. Each woman received 125,000 British pounds, or about $168,000 today, as part of the agreement not to talk to family or friends about the alleged assault and to adhere to strict parameters that limited their abilities to confide in a therapist.
And while the agreement had certain requirements meant to safeguard other women, including that Weinstein be prevented from traveling with female assistants, those measures weren’t upheld on Weinstein’s end, Perkins said.
“Ultimately what it came down to was the only thing we had to bargain with was our silence,” Perkins recently told The Lily.
Juda Engelmayer, Weinstein’s representative, told The Lily: “Harvey wishes to apologize to Zelda for ever hurting her. He says that he loved her and hurt her and didn’t realize how much.”
Weinstein is currently serving a 23-year prison sentence for sexually assaulting two women, and faces 10 additional counts of rape and sexual assault in California (Weinstein pleaded not guilty to those counts in July).
Perkins kept her silence for nearly two decades, until she spoke to journalists about the ordeal — including Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey of the New York Times and Ronan Farrow of the New Yorker, whose 2017 exposés of Weinstein detailed decades’ worth of sexual harassment allegations against the producer and the payments he made in an effort to keep women quiet.
Since then, Perkins has continued speaking out: In September, she and Canadian law professor Julie Macfarlane co-founded Can’t Buy My Silence, an advocacy campaign aimed at ending “the misuse of NDAs to buy victims’ silence,” according to the campaign’s website, which also contains tips for people considering signing NDAs and a place for people who have been hurt by signing the agreements to share their stories.
Perkins and Macfarlane — who has published research on universities’ use of NDAs in sexual misconduct cases — also this year helped write an amendment to an Irish employment equality bill that would restrict the use of NDAs, according to Perkins. The Irish bill has inspired similar bills seeking to limit NDAs in Canada and the U.K., Perkins added.
While most of Perkins’s and Macfarlane’s advocacy has been focused outside of the United States, they’ve supported the efforts of Ifeoma Ozoma, former public policy manager at Pinterest who broke her nondisclosure agreement with the company when she went public in June 2020 with allegations of racism and pay discrimination in the workplace. Ozoma co-sponsored California’s recently passed Silenced No More Act, which expands protections against secret settlements to cover all forms of harassment or discrimination under state law. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) signed the bill into law last month, and it will take effect next year.
Perkins also credited the advocacy organization Lift Our Voices, co-founded by former Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson, for its efforts seeking to ban NDAs and arbitration clauses in U.S. workplaces.
Between October 2017 and September 2020, at least 15 states have limited or prohibited employers from requiring employees to sign NDAs as a condition of employment or as part of a settlement agreement, according to a report published last year by the National Women’s Law Center.
The Lily recently spoke to Perkins about her new campaign, what she wants people to know about NDAs, and what she makes of the #MeToo movement four years on.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Q: Do you remember what was going through your mind when you signed your NDA with Weinstein?
A: [Chiu and I] went to lawyers wanting to take this to court, wanting justice to be served. At that point, I had never heard of a settlement agreement, I had never heard of a damages agreement, I had certainly never heard the term “NDA,” and in fact the term “NDA” was never used in 1998 with us. We were told very clearly that our only option was a damages agreement, by our own lawyers — they said, “You don’t have any proof, it’s he said, she said, you’re not going to get anywhere.”
[Signing the NDAs] finished both Rowena’s and my careers. I’d been working for Harvey for four years, I had a very fast career trajectory within the company. … But when I started trying to interview for jobs … you realize you cannot speak the truth, you can’t refer to why you left, so you end up looking like you’re suspicious.
Q: Can you talk about what made you decide to launch Can’t Buy My Silence?
A: From the day that I broke my agreement [in 2017], there was an avalanche of people contacting me telling me about their experiences of signing NDAs, and what was so upsetting for me was that people all have their lives genuinely ruined. When it happened to me, I was 24, 25 … career-wise, [Rowena and I] lost the trajectory that we might’ve had in that industry, but we were young enough to re-create ourselves. We also didn’t have any dependents — we didn’t have mortgages, or children, or school fees to pay, or any of those things.
And what I discovered in the ensuing years since I broke my agreement is that I’m being approached by people in the middle or the tops of their careers … their lives are even more in the balance [than ours were]. A lot of people who came to me fought against [the NDAs], and then in the end, they give in. So they don’t even get much money, because the money goes on the legal fees that they already spent trying to fight the injustice of what’s happening to them. And I would say that 95 percent of the people who I know had enormous mental breakdowns, a lot of them had huge impacts on their physical health, and they all had huge reverberations on their professional lives and personal lives.
I kind of had no idea how bad it was … everywhere you look now, [NDAs] have become standard. This is a legal tool that is hiding abuse and often criminal activity, and it just doesn’t make sense on any level.
Q: What do you want people to know if they’re thinking of signing an NDA, or if they’ve already signed one and regret it?
A: An NDA is just a clause within a settlement agreement. There is nothing wrong with having a nondisclosure agreement that is protecting intellectual property, trade secrets — that’s what they’re for, and they absolutely have a place … [but] somebody’s horrible experience at work is not a trade secret.
However, we’re also not saying that you can’t have a settlement agreement. There are situations at work where the only way forward is that there is a settlement, and you are entitled to a settlement, but what does not happen is what you are told — that you don’t get the payment if you don’t agree to full confidentiality. That is just not true. Ninety-five percent of cases will settle before going to [trial], even if you refuse to sign an NDA.
You can have a confidentiality clause that has specifics, that says you’re not going to go to the press, but it cannot stop you from reporting to the authorities, it cannot stop you from speaking to your friends or your family, it cannot stop you explaining to a future employer why you left a company. … You do not have to protect the perpetrator. There is no need to have in a settlement agreement that you can’t talk to the correct people about what has happened to you.
The truth is that you do not need to be bullied into signing an NDA, and the lawyers will try to smoke you out, and tell you that you have to and that you have no power, but ultimately the whole point of an NDA is that your employer or whatever institution doesn’t want this to go public — so they’re not going to go to court. And I think everyone forgets that … but the ultimate goal for that person, that employer, is to stop this from being a big public exposé. And going to court is going to be worse for them than it is for you.
Q: We’re four years from when the #MeToo movement went global. What do you make of where it stands now, and what do you think has changed, if anything, in terms of how people understand sexual harassment and assault?
A: Everything has changed and nothing has changed. It’s difficult because I just want to be positive, but there’s such a huge disparity between the zeitgeist and the reality, and I think we have to be very mindful of that.
The fantastic thing is that so many people — and not just women — have found their voices and they’ve found a platform, and people are being listened to in a way that they were not listened to before.
Awareness has grown enormously, unrecognizably. But awareness-growing and actual grass-roots change are two very different things … nothing changes until law backs it up, and this is why it’s so important that legislation is changed in every state, in every country, to protect whistleblowers, and to protect victims. And there is a huge, great dialogue now going on, but the job is nowhere even near done.