On October 7, Tina Tchen was named the new president and CEO of Time’s Up, an organisation famously launched in a full-page New York Times ad in the wake of the stunning response to the same newspaper’s exposé of producer Harvey Weinstein’s years of alleged sexual misconduct.
While the idea of Time’s Up originated in closed-door meetings among Hollywood’s elite, its purpose was broader: Time’s Up aims to address the insidious effects of sexual misconduct on all women’s careers, self-worth, and lives.
For Tchen, this post is a culmination of nearly 40 years spent working to address issues of gender inequality, as a post-grad in the Illinois government, a lawyer, and eventually a staffer at the Obama White House. Tchen served as Michelle Obama’s Chief of Staff, the Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, and worked to form the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault. For the past two years, she has worked with companies like Uber to change their internal culture.
“For all that work, that’s about four decades’ worth, I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a moment like the one we’re in right now. Given this unique inflection moment, the opportunity to step into a role at Time’s Up is something I couldn’t pass up,” Tchen tells Refinery29.
After the announcement, Michelle Obama complimented her former Chief of Staff on Twitter, calling Tchen “one of the most brilliant and purposeful leaders I’ve ever worked with.”
Tchen has been involved in Time’s Up since its inception, co-founding the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which provides legal aid and PR to survivors who come forward. She succeeds CEO Lisa Borders, who resigned in February 2019 after sexual assault allegations were levelled against her 36-year-old son. Afterward, COO Rebecca Goldman served as interim CEO.
Refinery29 spoke to Tchen about what Time’s Up has accomplished in its first two years, like terminating New York State’s five-year statute of limitations on rape cases — and what the organisation is taking on next.
Refinery29: You were a founding member of Time’s Up. How would you characterise the energy of the meetings in those early days?
Tina Tchen: “As someone outside the industry, we have the idea of Hollywood stars hanging out on Saturday night, or going to parties. They actually aren’t. They didn’t have a community with one another. So in the early days there was, for them, this real connection and discovery of women in the same position, in the same field, sharing the same experiences — but never talking about them before.
“What I really admired about them is it could’ve stopped there. Just to find sisterhood in your industry and foster it. But they took a commitment to take action. That’s not easy — when you’re building a career as a public person, the advice you get is, Don’t take a position on political issues. Yet they did. The messages I’ve gotten yesterday have been with all the same enthusiasm from women in Hollywood as we had two years ago. I’m grateful that they have stuck with it and are committed to sticking with it for months and years to come.
You mentioned that after 40 years in this sector, this moment feels different. What changed?
“I have to start with acknowledging the bravery and the courage of the survivors who came forward two years ago to talk about their experiences. You can’t solve a problem that you cannot see. There wasn’t an appreciation for the dimensions and persistence of the problem. It’s been 30 years since the Supreme Court outlawed sexual harassment as a matter of federal employment law, and yet here we are today. We realised the efforts we’d been doing simply has not been sufficient.
“It’s more than individual acts of sexual harassment. Entire workplace cultures aren’t equitable. To really get at sexual harassment and prevent it we have to build workplaces where everyone feels safe and respected and able to reach their full potential. Everyone will benefit from a culture that values employees as opposed to seeing employee costs as something to be contained and limited.”
Where and how do you see Time’s Up helping with transformational shifts in the workplace?
“We have a generous seed grant from Melinda Gates to start a Time’s Up Impact Lab, which will be a pioneering research entity to study and develop the evidence and the data to support what are the best practices and policies that will change workplaces.
“We’re going to continue to advocate and support survivors through the Legal Defense Fund, and speak up when individuals experience things. Like when Time’s Up supported the women athletes who came forward when Nike told them to step back from their endorsements when they were pregnant, and Nike changed its policies. We’re going to continue to do public policy advocacy to expand protections of victims of sexual assault, like changing the law in New York.
“Finally, I feel strongly that it’s not just public policy that’s going to change things. State laws and federal laws change slowly. Companies can do more than that. They can aspire to better policies that will support their culture. A company can overnight decide to change their policy — grant paid leave, or pregnancy accommodation — and affect all of their employees. There’s a real opportunity now to help companies do that.”
In the two years since Time’s Up was formed, the organisation has had concrete achievements, but also has been criticised for being cliquey and inefficient. Why has Time’s Up been the focus of criticism?
“I’ve been working on gender equity issues for a long time. Criticism of organisations of women coming together to strive for more power are pretty common. I’ve heard it before; I’m not surprised to hear it again. I’m in particular not surprised to hear it levelled at an organisation like Time’s Up, that has amassed so much power and influence in such a short amount of time.
“We need to do a better job of communicating and getting the word out about programs like Time’s Up Pay Up [Ed note: a campaign for equal pay launched with the U.S. Women’s Soccer team]. Or a mentoring project we started in the entertainment industry called Who’s in the Room, for young women and people of colour in assistant positions. Women and men of influence have lent their time to be those mentors and provide guidance. We need to do a better job of communicating, and that’s one of the things that I’ll be doing as president and CEO.”
You’ve been working in this sector for years. What’s the place you’ve been working towards your whole life? What does success look like to you?
“There are a lot of things I could tell you. I want to get to a place where for business, these issues around working families, true equity, safety, and respect for your workforce is as much a part of this DNA of managing a company as looking at your audit report every year, or looking at your profit and loss bank statement is every month. These need to be issues that are always on a CEO’s mind — not just when there’s a crisis.
“And that the people in your workforce are diverse — that you’re measured every day on how many women you’re mentoring, how many people of colour, how many disabled people. What accommodations are you making for the pregnant and disabled? Have that be a part of everyday business.”
Who’s the first person you told about the job?
“It’s hard to answer because this was an evolutionary process. It was a little more pull on the Time’s Up side than pull on my side. It wasn’t a moment of realising that Time’s Up wanted me [so much] as making the decision that I was prepared to jump into the pool and take this on. I was talking to lots of people in that process. Not the least of which are my two adult children, who are my fondest critics and supporters.”
You were a single, working mom through all of this.
“Yes, a single working mom the whole time. I had my son when I was married. I got divorced from his dad and adopted my daughter from China. They’re now 31 and 22. My message to young parents is that they’re adults, they’re wonderful human beings, and we have a great relationship. It happens! It works!”