Q&A With Tina Tchen, The New President of Time’s Up

By Ayana Byrd Nov 01, 2019

In 2017, as the Me Too Movement amplified the oft-silenced voices of women who have been sexually harassed, more than 300 women in the entertainment industry decided that change needed to include more than speaking out—it also required a transformation of how employers treat women. In response, they launched Time’s Up.

From the beginning, Time’s Up was concerned with much more than Hollywood. Enter: Tina Tchen. An attorney who specializes in workplace culture, she co-founded the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund in 2017. The Fund helps survivors of sexual harassment and retaliation—especially lower-income earning women and people of color—find justice by providing them with legal representation. Two years later, Tchen is officially the president and CEO of Time’s Up Now and the Time’s Up Foundation.

Here, Tchen, who helped form the White House Task Force to Protect Students from Sexual Assault under President Barack Obama, talks to Colorlines on her first day at the helm of the organization about why she believes that even in the face of gender-based discrimination, we are experiencing a “groundswell” of change that will allow Time’s Up to usher in sweeping change.

You called your new position at Time’s Up the “role of a lifetime.” As someone who was an assistant to President Obama, executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls and chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, a lot of people would say you have already had the role of a lifetime—so what makes this current one that?

[laughing] Yes, it’s true. The opportunity to serve in the White House in multiple roles was really unmatched. But this position at Time’s Up is unique and different. At the White House, women and girls were a chief focus of my work, but at Times Up, it is a full-time job. How do we change workspaces to make them equitable? That is the central question of what I will be doing.

I have been interested in this my entire career. I started working on equal rights issues right out of college and in state government when I was in my twenties. But my entire career as a practicing lawyer, I was a single mother raising two kids. And I was on a tightrope—I had resources [not available to many women] and it was still hard.

In most of my business cases, I lived being the person of color. I lived being the only woman. So now, I have the chance to address diversity and inclusion in the workplace, as well as ways to transform it to become more inclusive for everyone. This is a unique time when the entire nation is focused on that.

More than three decades ago, in 1986, the Supreme Court ruled that sexual harassment in the workplace was illegal. Yet here were are today, still trying to properly fight it. How, in the face of the reality that this is not a fight about changing laws, can Time’s Up do this?

What I’ve learned is that the things we have been trying to do around diversity, inclusion and sexual harassment have been insufficient. We need new approaches. Which is why I’m very excited about the Impact Lab, Time’s Up research and policy arm. It will allow us to study what has been done that worked and what has not as we develop new tools and practices. We need to establish that these are priorities for companies, not just something that HR departments are thinking about, but also a focus for CEOs and C-suite executives.

Why is this something that CEOs and C-suite executives need to focus on?

We know that in a knowledge economy we need the best and brightest, and that requires as diverse a talent pool as possible. You don’t only need to attract and hire them, you need to keep them. We also know that the failure to have diverse workplaces is not just a pipeline issue. Take my industry—women have been graduating law school at a rate of 50-50 to men for over a decade. But there are reasons why workplaces are not diverse. There are everyday microaggresions that make women feel they don’t belong and are not safe or respected. This can include things like not listening to them in meetings to giving them the smallest office. It is just as important to invest in the workforce as it is in the best technology. What we can do at Time’s Up is provide these companies with the best tools and practices to do this.

A number of women of color do not believe that the Me Too Movement is for them—many of these women also feel they have no protection from harassment in the workplace. What is Time’s Up message for these women?

We are very focused on those issues, because we know that women of color experience workplace inequities in much more egregious ways than White women. Black women file sexual harassment grievances with the EEOC at three times the rate of White women. The pay gap for women compared to men is 82 cents on the dollar, but for Latinas it is 54 cents, 62 cents for African Americans and 58 cents for Native American women. Women overall lose half a million in wages over the course of their career, but African American women will lose a million. These are critical issues for women of color. It requires that Time’s Up continues to make sure we are lifting up the unique ways women of color are victimized or not included in the workplace.

What about women who are not working in corporate America? How does Time’s Up approach change when helping women who are not in Hollywood or a C-suite position?

From the beginning of Time’s Up, the women in Hollywood who started it were not just thinking about their own industry. They were very concerned with the question of how do we create a movement that includes [lower-income earning] workers, farmworkers, hotel workers? We created Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund to have a vehicle to help these women. Because many of them are paid so little, their lawsuits may not result in a large payout—which can make it very difficult for them to find a lawyer to take the case. So we wanted to give women access to legal assistance. Since the Defense Fund’s creation, two-thirds of the [3,600] people who have been served were lower income. It is necessary to make sure they have access to representation.

We also need to change companies. For example, that could mean putting in safety devices for hotel workers working late at night. And we have to address contract workers—for example, California and New York state are now working to make sure people in the gig economy are included. Women up and across the wage scale must have the protections they need.

While you’ve been associated with Time’s Up since it began, what are you most excited about in this new position?

There is an incredible groundswell happening right now. In a number of industries—like health care, Hollywood and the media—women came together and organically demanded that they have a voice. I am excited in this new position about deepening the work they have done and widening it.

I’m also excited because I believe that 10 years from now we will see workplaces that are more respectful of everyone. And it will be the companies that get it right that will be the companies that are successful ten years from now.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.