She officially takes office on Nov. 1, but she's already making waves for women's equality at work.

By Shalayne Pulia
Updated Oct 31, 2019 @ 3:30 pm
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Even though Tina Tchen will assume her role as president and CEO of Time’s Up Now and the Time’s Up Foundation on Nov. 1, the former lawyer has been integral to the organization's efforts since its beginning two years ago this January. The former chief of staff to Michelle Obama and executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls helped found the group’s Legal Defense Fund, which has helped more than 3,600 workers across industries who have experienced sexual harassment connect with attorneys.

“We're at a very pivotal cultural transformational moment that is being fueled by the urgency that we all feel because of the stories that these courageous women and men have told about their experiences,” Tchen tells InStyle. “What we're talking about is really changing some very fundamental ways in which people behave with one another, manage one another, and respect one another. That's what makes it such an incredibly exciting time.”

Most recently, after NBC Universal released a statement on the Rachel Maddow Show urging employees who have not been able to address sexual harassment claims due to confidentiality agreements or NDAs to contact NBC first to have the agreements released, Tchen spoke up in support of survivors. In a statement, she called on NBC Universal to release former employees form any and all NDA agreements outright instead of expecting women to contact NBC legal to tell their story. "There is no reason to place the burden on those who choose to speak to reveal themselves in advance to NBC Universal," she says. "This is an example of the burdens that perpetuate fear and silence, no matter what new policies and trainings may say."

Though Tchen tells InStyle that her new position has come as somewhat of a surprise, many Time’s Up-affiliated stars, supporters, and former coworkers including Michelle Obama, Tchen's co-chair of United State of Women (USOW) Valerie Jarrett, and Meryl Streep have taken to Twitter to sing Tchen’s praises.

Tchen, who has left her post at her law firm Buckley LLP to take over Time’s Up, will oversee Time’s Up in its entirety, which will now include the newly announced Impact Lab innovation center launched with help from Melinda Gates’s Pivotal Ventures investment and incubation company. Gates also voiced her support for Tchen on Twitter: “@TIMESUPNOW isn't just driving the conversation forward on gender equality — they're helping to ensure the workplace becomes a place where everyone can thrive. I'm excited for @TinaTchen's leadership & to see what the Impact Lab can do for all of us.”

Tchen promises the Lab will focus on research and data collection as the group seeks out new ways to end harassment, discrimination, and other inequities. “I think the big takeaway is to join us and to be part of the solution,” Tchen says. “This is really an opportunity where everyone can play a role. Whether you are the CEO of a company or whether you are a shop floor manager, you can start paying attention to what's going on in your workplace.”

What are you most excited for in this role?

I'm very excited. It's not something I had planned on doing. But these are issues that I have been working on since I was young, fresh out of college. I started working on gender equality issues in Illinois and on combating sexual assault. And I've been a single working mom my entire career, so I've lived through the issues working families confront. I had means — I was a partner at a big law firm, so I had resources — and it was still hard. It is exponentially more difficult for families that are on minimum wage or less or are working without even any paid sick days. Building better workplaces and advancing women and people of color in the workplace are passions of mine. I think the opportunity to make real transformational change was an opportunity that I couldn't pass up.

What are your specific goals for Time's Up as you look to the future?

We're going to continue to support survivors, making sure they get the resources they need in terms of legal resources and PR resources. Then I'm also really excited that we have a generous seed grant from Melinda Gates and Pivotal Ventures to start a new Impact Lab at Time's Up, which will be a pathbreaking, pioneering research arm to develop the data and the evidence on the best practices and policies that will work to build better workplaces. Then we're going to continue to do advocacy work, both public policy and within the private sector. Also, we will work within companies and within specific industries like healthcare and the tech space, as we have in the entertainment industry.

Are there any other industries that you're planning to really focus on in 2020?

Those are the ones that have come up somewhat organically. Advertising is another one where the women in those spaces have already self-organized and moved forward, which has been amazing to see. But I think we want to be not just restricted to those industries and start looking especially in areas where there are low-wage workers, like the hospitality or manufacturing industries.

Have there been any industries that have been surprisingly difficult for Time's Up to help or industries that you didn't really expect would have this issue?

Well, sadly I don't think there's any industry I thought wouldn't have this issue. We know from the EEOC that up to 85 percent of women report being sexually harassed in some form or another during the course of their career. That tells you right now that sexual harassment probably is everywhere. That is what we've seen. There's no industry that's immune. There's no large organization that's immune. Quite frankly, it's in any large organization because we're talking about gender norms that exist in the broader culture that we've all been raised with that have existed not just for decades, but for generations. We're trying to really break that mold and create new culture and transform it.

What are you most proud of accomplishing with the fund and with Time's Up in general so far?

With the fund there's just story after story. One person I think about a lot, because she was one of our first clients, is a hotel cook in Pennsylvania who got fired when she complained of being sexually harassed by, I think, an engineer who also worked at the hotel. I'm happy to report that fairly recently we got her settlement.

We've also been able to do things like when Nike told their women track athletes to step back from their endorsements when they were pregnant — which was kind of outrageous — we reached out to those athletes, but then we also quietly reached out to Nike and got them to change their policy, which is one of the ways I hope we can make changes. We want to raise awareness and hold people accountable, but we also want to work with companies. Some of our laws set the bar pretty low for bad behavior, but a company can choose to be better than that, can choose to act faster than that, can set the culture that they want right now, and with a stroke of the pen, provide paid leave, provide pregnancy accommodations, provide equal pay. That's what we want to do.

What has surprised you so far in your work with Time's Up?

I've been really quite frankly gratified that this is a national conversation that has continued this long. And I'm very optimistic that it will continue into the future — it's going to take a lot longer than two years to solve the problem, but I really am optimistic that we are on a path to fundamentally solve the problem and change the way workplaces operate for the future.

How would you say is best for people to get involved right now?

A quick way to be a part of Time's Up is by texting the word "now,” to 30644. People will get on our alert list, updates from us, tools for themselves, extra access to information that they can use or their friends can use if they are victims of sexual harassment, and then be part of this effort going forward.

What are you personally most looking forward to 2020 and beyond?

What I'm looking forward to is, again, expanding this conversation. I think we've only scratched the surface of what sexual harassment is and where it exists and how to combat it. I also think the news tends to report only the most egregious violations, the really, truly awful physical, sexual assaults that have happened in the workplace. But there is also the everyday conduct that doesn't arrive to the legal level of harassment because the bar for bad behavior is set pretty low in the law. There’s still a lot of really exclusionary, bullying behavior that keeps women, people of color, LGBTQ workers, and disabled workers excluded in the workplace. Some of the behaviors that push people out of work, make them not feel wanted at work, aren't necessarily illegal actions under sexual harassment laws that currently exist.

What is the best piece of advice you can give right now to supporters?

We've all experienced [a meeting] where a woman raises her hand, brings forward an idea, and nobody pays attention to her until five minutes later a man says the same idea. Whether you are the person running the meeting or you're just a person in it, you can notice that, and you can change culture by saying, "Oh no, no, no. I want to go back and hear what Tina said. I like her idea. Can we go back to that? Because she said that first." Everyone can do that. Everyone can start paying attention to those little moments where someone is not being heard or someone is not getting respected. And that's what starts to change culture: those little moments, those little interactions that start to build on one another.