Meet Tina Tchen: A Champion for Gender Equality from the Obama Administration
by Jessica Howard, Senior Writer
Canadian Women’s Foundation
September 6, 2017
“Every social change movement goes through ups and downs … we may be in one of those step-back moments, but we’re not going all the way back.”
Although she’s concerned, Tina Tchen’s unique vantage point helps her put things in perspective: Tina served as Assistant to President Obama, Chief of Staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, and Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls. She also led the first-ever United State of Women Summit.
Tina was the keynote speaker at the Canadian Women’s Foundation Annual Breakfast events in Toronto and Calgary in October. In case you weren’t able to attend, keep reading to find out how she’s continuing to rally for equality, and why she sees a silver lining in the storm clouds.
Q. You’ve been an advocate for gender equality for decades. What sparked your activism? Who is your role model?
Tina Tchen: I first studied women’s history and the women’s suffrage movement when I was in college. That was when my eyes opened to this history that, up until then, I had no idea about.
Right after college I moved to Springfield, Illinois, which coincidentally, right then in 1978, became the focal point of the country for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment.
I was very active with the National Organization for Women at the time, advocating for the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, and it gave me that lifelong passion for gender equality.
I have many role models, but Gloria Steinem is someone who, for many women my age, spoke to these issues when they were not at the forefront, when they were radical, and it was risky. She did it in a way that was incredibly clear and moving and passionate.
I would also say Eleanor Smeal, who was the head of NOW back then, that’s who I learned advocacy and activism from. She’s currently the head of the
Q: Do you have any advice for women when it comes to navigating a male-dominated field such as politics, or overcoming obstacles like bias and discrimination?
Tina Tchen: I came out of a male-dominated field, the world of corporate law, which is even tougher than politics. At least in the public sector, there is an expectation that there will be women and minorities at the table. That’s not necessarily the case in the private sector. So that in itself is a tough environment.
My advice for women is to always be prepared and know your stuff. Once you have that foundation, you know what you want to get out of a meeting, for example, and what you want to bring to it.
My second piece of advice is to always speak up, and don’t let yourself be sidelined. Make sure you’ve got the information that someone needs, and that you can express it and make yourself heard.
Q: When you think back to your work in the White House, what are you most proud of?
Tina Tchen: We had a lot of accomplishments that I’m really proud of – the work of the White House Council on Women and Girls on working families’ issues, combating violence against women and campus sexual assault, promoting women small-business owners, and advancing the interests of women and girls of colour.
I’m probably most proud of how we did it, which was through an inclusive process that involved all of the federal agencies across the federal government. As the former President often said, we know that every part of the federal government touches the lives of women and girls. We were able to communicate that through the work of the Council.
Some of the proudest moments were when it wasn’t me or the Council front and centre, but when somebody included in their policy statement, or in one of the President’s speeches, an impassioned point about gender equality in the world, or the importance of girls’ education in the world, because that meant that everybody got it without my having to be there.
Q: Are you concerned that women’s rights and gender equality are more at risk now than in the past?
Tina Tchen: Every social change movement goes through ups and downs. There’s often a two-steps forward, one step-back moment. And we may be in one of those step-back moments, but we’re not going all the way back, because we’ve already made many steps forward.
You can see that in many ways. It used to be the case that when people would advocate for family leave, or for a working families’ agenda, the people on the other side of that issue would be saying “no regulation at all” or “we don’t need family leave policies.”
Actually, the rhetoric on the other side has changed. It’s no longer that there shouldn’t be any family leave, it’s about what kind of family leave there should be. That’s a pretty big change.
So while I am concerned about where we’re going to go, I also take heart that we start at a different place than we did in the past.
Q: You and former White House colleague Valerie Jarrett are leading a series of. What are these events and where do you hope they lead?
Tina Tchen: The Galvanize Program is part of the United State of Women, which is an umbrella organization that grew out of our first United State of Women Summit, held in June 2016, by the Council on Women and Girls, and other organizations.
The intent there was to bring all of the women’s organizations and issues together in one conference. Women don’t live their lives in siloes – violence in one silo, working families in another, women’s health in a third – our lives are across all of these issues.
We wanted a place where all of the advocates could come together, find commonalities, support one another, and where the average person who is concerned about what’s going on in the world could easily tap into the women’s movement, find out where to go, and where to get resources.
The Galvanize Summits are our first effort to continue that outside of Washington. What we showcase at the events are local people developing solutions for local issues. We had about 1,000 women attend Galvanize in Chicago in July, and 500 women attend in Columbus, Ohio in August. There’s clearly incredible energy and enthusiasm out there.
Q: What are you hearing from those who attend the summits?
Tina Tchen: One of the consistent things is a concern about what’s happening, and a desire to take action, including taking action by running for office. Part of the Summits is training sessions in areas like how to run for office, how to start your own business, and women’s leadership.
Surprisingly, the “how to run for office” sessions have been among the most highly attended by women who, for the first time, are thinking about running, or who want to get trained as campaign managers.
There’s been this amazing outpouring of women who are saying, “I’ve never done this before, but I want to be part of the change.” The silver lining in all of this mounting concern is that it has woken a lot of people up to the importance of being active.
Q: Escalating protests and violence around race and immigration seem to signal growing social divisions. How can the gender equality movement stay united and continue moving forward?
Tina Tchen: It’s important to see the commonality across all of these issues, and the best way for all of us to succeed is to stay united.
We may have a neighbour facing the immigration crisis, someone in our family who is transgender, or we’ve got a co-worker who has been discriminated against. All of these issues have at their core a theme of justice and equality — the fundamental principles that our country stands for and that we want to promote.
One of the great things that happened in terms of the LGBTQ+ progress we were able to make in the last 8 years was that the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, the employment discrimination folks, the folks in the education space – everyone came together to realize the importance of employment rights for LGBTQ folks, marriage equality, and protections for trans students. That gave real power to that movement and allowed us to make progress.
It’s important to act in coalition even if it’s not your main issue, because when it becomes your main issue – when funding for violence against women becomes threatened, for example – that’s when everyone else will step behind you and that will increase strength in numbers.
I also firmly believe that’s what the public responds to, because people’s lives touch a lot of these issues all at once.
Q: How do you make the case that achieving gender equality is urgent?
Tina Tchen: You only have to cite a few statistics to make it clear that we are nowhere near what would be considered gender parity.
In the U.S., we are at about 20 per cent representation of women in the U.S. Congress, and at about 5 per cent of CEOs. We’re at about 17 per cent of women partners in large law firms, and that comes after a decade of being at gender parity in the number of women lawyers graduating from law school. We’re still nowhere near where we need to be at the top of the profession.
Overall, we’re still at only about 80 cents on the dollar for pay equity, and it gets worse for women of colour. So we still have a long way to go, and we’re still fighting for basic things. In the U.S., we’re back to fighting for whether maternity care should be covered under our health care system. The need for gender equality is as urgent as it’s ever been.
Q: Where do you think Canada stands in terms of progress on gender equality?
Tina Tchen: I have to give your administration great credit because Prime Minister Trudeau, right out of the gate, made his cabinet 50 per cent women and put women in incredibly prominent positions.
On the international stage, he took a stand on things like girls’ education, which we worked with his administration on, and women’s health, which is tremendously important, and women’s economic progress. I think Canada is showing great leadership to the rest of the world on this issue.
Q: What is your advice for keeping up the momentum toward equality in our own lives and communities?
Tina Tchen: I think it’s important to keep talking about gender equality in our families and in our communities. We want to dispel that notion that this is an old issue, that it’s over, and make it clear that it’s not.
I think it’s also important to talk to our young girls. I worry a lot, as the mother of a young college student, about the images and the messages on social media, the bullying that happens, about the body image issues and body shaming that goes on.
We have to make sure we keep talking to our young women about finding their voices, and supporting them as they find those voices.