Tina Tchen: A Voice for Transformation
By Aundrea Cline-Thomas
A lawyer by trade, Tina Tchen’s career has sent her on an unexpected journey. Currently the President and CEO of TIMES UP Now and the TIMES UP Foundation, she co-founded the TIMES’S UP Legal Defense fund in 2017, which has helped provide legal and PR support to more than 4,000 people confronting sexual harassment in various industries. Tchen began her career in Illinois state government in a role that landed her in the White House as the former assistant to President Barack Obama, then as the executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, and, finally, as chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama. Now in what she calls her “third act,” Tchen believes she has changed careers during a transformational moment in history.
“It does feel like I’ve been working and building my way through these various jobs to this moment, to this job, to this transformational point in time that I think we’re in,” says Chen. “A lot of life is the luck of being in the right place at the right time. I think that maybe I was fortunate to arrive at right now.”
What innate qualities did you have as a child that you cultivate, which continue to serve you today?
I am a child of Chinese immigrants and grew up in a neighborhood where I was more of a curiosity — and certainly very different. I can remember at a very young age being looked at and pointed to in a grocery store. My parents just instilled in me and my sister a very strong sense of self and a great appreciation for our heritage. They started a Chinese family camp with other families from the Midwest, where we learned the Chinese language and the way to really keep the connection to our cultural heritage alive. That camp has been going strong for 62 years. When I became one of only a few women who were at the level I was practicing in corporate law, or certainly the only woman of color in a meeting with senior executives or co-counsel … it was familiar territory. I think my familiarity with feeling like an outsider really enabled me to be successful in those situations. It is hard to have those moments — especially if you are experiencing them for the first time in your professional career — and not let those feelings get inside your head and undermine your confidence.
How did gender equality and parity in the workplace become a passion of yours?
Illinois was the only northern industrial state that had not ratified the Equal Rights Amendment in 1978. Everyone who was a national icon from the women’s movement came to Illinois. We had demonstrations and I became an officer in the National Organization for Women. I think that experience set me on a path of working on women’s issues my entire career. Then I spent my whole working life as a mom, raising two kids on my own as a lawyer, but with resources. I was very conscious of the fact that if it was hard for me, how much more exponentially difficult it would be for a woman on minimum wage, a woman with no sick leave let alone paid family leave. So that has continued to propel me.
How do you think the public fall of very powerful men impacted the workplace for everyday women?
We’ve seen it with the incredible, brave silence breakers that came forward. You cannot solve a problem you cannot see. We started seeing it for the first time in the last few years and that has had a ripple effect, not just on individual powerful men who are losing their jobs, who are now going to jail. It has caused companies to take a second look at what are we missing. What’s in our policies? How do we do better? I believe the reason why I took this job at TIME’S UP is that we are in a transformational moment culturally to change the gender norms. They don’t come around very often. But when they come, we can completely adjust the way we think about the workplace, about women’s and men’s roles, and about how we treat one another.
How has working in this space changed you?
When I left the White House after eight years, I returned to private practice. That was my third act. I was still supporting TIME’S UP working with the legal defense fund, the United States of Women and When We All Vote. Then this opportunity came along, which I really resisted for a long time. At this stage of my life, it’s really put me into an entirely new profession of a full-time advocate. [It just] had me double down on my commitment to these issues that I have been working on my whole life. A lot of life is the luck of being in the right place at the right time. I think that maybe I was fortunate to arrive at right now.
Aundrea Cline-Thomas is a reporter at CBS New York.
To learn more about Tina Tchen, read her NYWICI Profile here.