Every day for Tina Tchen is different, and yet that is exactly what keeps her energetic, grounded, and alert. As the former Assistant to President Barack Obama, former Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, and the former Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, it’s not a surprise.
Tina inspires leaders to push forward, take action, and most of all remember the core of why the work matters. She’s handled everything from complex civil litigation to enforcement matters across the country. She represented public agencies in state and federal class actions, and successfully argued before the United States Supreme Court on behalf of the State of Illinois.
Since leaving the White House, Tina has not slowed down. She now heads Buckley Sandler’s Chicago office, where she is the leader of Buckley Sandler’s Workplace Cultural Compliance Practice, counseling companies on issues related to gender inequity, sexual harassment, and lack of diversity in the workplace. She guides companies in approaching cultural compliance issues with the same rigor and vigilance — and the same compliance-management systems and controls — that they devote to other critical risks.
With that said, it is also to no surprise Tina is instrumental in spearheading the Time’s Up movement’s Legal Defense Fund, which provides legal support to women and men who have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace.
However, despite her lengthy resume and monumental career path, she remains incredibly humble and compassionate, which truly speaks to all elements of her achievements. Find out what Tina shared with Her Agenda insights from her life both in and outside of the Obama Administration, her advice for young, female leaders, and where she has found her greatest and unbeatable strength.
Her Agenda: What are you most proud of accomplishing as the Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls?
Tina Tchen: It’s really hard to pick one thing. No really – we were able to do many things across a lot of issues which was the point of having a council of women and girls (which included all of the federal agencies and white house policy offices). It wasn’t a few people in the administration concentrating on women and girls, but the entire federal government paying attention to issues that concerned women and girls.
Mrs. Obama had an international girls education campaign called, “Let Girls Learn.” We included women’s health in the Affordable Care Act, we expanded the roles of women in the military, we expanded opportunities for women highway engineers in the Department of Transportation. We expanded protections for students from campus sexual assault, we authorized the Violence Against Women Act, we put a whole series of different programs and policies in place to protect women from violence in the workplace and their homes and their rental units, and in their schools. It covered the entire spectrum of issues and I think that was only possible because we were able to work with the entire federal government.
Her Agenda: How exactly did you get involved in the Time’s Up movement?
Tina Tchen: The issues of working women is something I’ve worked on my entire adult life, even pre-White House, as a single working mom. These are issues I’ve cared about for many, many years – they were a centerpiece of work in the Obama Administration. We held the first ever White House summit on working families that addressed all these issues including sexual harassment but also equal pay and paid leave, because these are all connected. Diversity and inclusion in the workforce are connected to combating sexual harassment and discrimination.
We have continued that work after the White House with the United State of Women Movement, that is working with local folks across the country ever since 2016. The next national summit is in Los Angeles this year and I happened to be working on that issue in Los Angeles this past October. I met with many of our friends in Los Angeles who were women in the entertainment industry who were at that point meeting in the post-Weinstein story week on how to take this moment and make stable change and that is how I got involved.
I started talking to all those women and as a lawyer, legal issues came to the surface for me very quickly. We realized one of the things we could do to help people immediately was to provide more legal resources and get women connected to lawyers to help defend and represent them – especially for low-income women who don’t have the resources. That was of particular interest to the women in the entertainment industry, who to their credit, really wanted to make sure any efforts that they did reached low-income women and women in jobs like farm and hotel workers. That is how the Legal Defense Fund came about and that is a particular focal point of mine.
Her Agenda: Why do you think this came about at the time that is did? Do you think it’s solely due to the stories women have shared?
Tina Tchen: Oh, I think we are in this moment because of the courage of women who came forward to tell their stories and the many women who have come forward, including women who are known, who people recognize, and can relate to.
If those women had the courage to speak out, other women with less celebrity or people who are in other industries found the courage to speak out too, and that has led us to the moment where we realize how many industries and how many workplaces are affected by these issues including ones where many of the people in those workplaces didn’t realize what was going on. That really fueled the momentum.
Her Agenda: Being a mom and a 24/7 advocate for these issues among others, how have you overcome different fear tactics that were thrown at you being a person in the field of advocacy?
Tina Tchen: The greatest strength in any work that you do is your colleagues. I think that I have been blessed in all these different aspects of my life to have great friends and colleagues that I work beside whether in my work place, the advocacy work, or the electoral and political work I have done, your strength comes in numbers. That’s the most important thing.
Her Agenda: What is your definition of work life balance?
Tina Tchen: [Starts to laugh] I bet everyone laughs right? Because you are never entirely in balance, unless being in balance means at any moment you can tip over – that’s it too.
I don’t know if there is any one definition because the reality is the demands on your time change all the time. They are different when your children are little [versus] when they are older, and that doesn’t mean they need less time either. But your work ebbs and flows too, so I think the important thing is to manage the varying rhythms of work and home and try to get those rhythms in sync as much as you can but recognizing they are going to change.
Her Agenda: Do you feel that for yourself, your flow is keeping up with the changes instead of following a schedule?
Tina Tchen: Oh no, I do not. I have the opposite of the same schedule everyday. I enjoy the variety that having a different schedule every day brings, I probably take energy from that. I’m someone who would be less satisfied with having the same routine everyday.
Her Agenda: In your work counseling different companies, so that they can truly comprehend gender inequity and sexual harassment among many other issues – what is the most challenging part of that process?
Tina Tchen: The biggest challenge we are all collectively facing at the moment is trying to determine what are the policies and tactics that will work to change diversity in the workforce. We have a growing body of resources but we need more. I also think we need to adapt to changing technology and the needs that working families have. The law needs to adapt because the legal constructs that we have, have not kept pace with the way work is done right now and the challenges that women and people of color and folks with disabilities face in the workforce. I think that is a challenge we all have right now.
Her Agenda: Is there anything about you that the public doesn’t know outside of your career path that is a big part of your life?
Tina Tchen: I say the obvious, which is my kids. Right now our family is adjusting to having adult kids. My family is the most important thing and I have two terrific kids, but they are 21 and 29 [years old] now. My son just got married and we are all adjusting to how different that is. Everyone is both pursuing their careers but staying very close together as a family and we are all in different cities at the moment, and so how does that work. So that has been different.
Her Agenda: A lot is happening in your work and the lives of women everywhere, let alone so many different communities. Do you have any advice for young women who are trying to make a difference in terms of gender equality in the workplace and are deciding how to take action?
Tina Tchen: I have two pieces of advice – one is to find your own voice and not adopt someone else’s voice in how you express yourself, how you do your work, and how you do your advocacy – and that can take time. Don’t expect to find your voice on day one. It takes time learning what your own strengths and weaknesses are and how to express them. Two is, find friends and allies. No one does any of this alone. No one does their own work life balance alone, no one accomplishes big tasks at work alone, no one advocates for social change alone. In every aspect of what you do, I have found the most important thing is find allies and friends in each space.
[Editor’s note: This interview published on April 30th, 2018. It has been edited for length and clarity.]