Get out and Vote! A Conversation with Tina Tchen, CEO of TIME’S UP Now

Hello everyone! It’s Riveter founder Amy Nelson here. As the election season comes to a close – and I hope you’ve voted! – I wanted to share with you an incredible interview with an incredible civil servant, Tina Tchen. Tina is the CEO of TIME’S UP Now but before leading this critical initiative, she served as First Lady Michelle Obama’s Chief of Staff and as co-chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls. Just last month, my friend Sam Ettus and I launched a podcast called What’s the Story with Sam and Amy. We’ve been able to interview incredible women like Tina, Arianna Huffington, Abby Wambach and more. I hope you listen in and enjoy our talk with Tina! 

Before you joined the Obama administration, you had an incredibly successful career as an attorney. But you joined the profession when there were very few women attorneys. What was that experience like? 

I grew up in Ohio as the only Chinese kid in my class. In fact, I grew up in a very Jewish neighborhood and I was one of very few non-Jewish children at my school. After law school, I joined the recently opened Chicago office of a global law firm called Skadden Arps. I was one of about 30 lawyers at the time when I got there. And I think this idea of being “other” was something I was quite used to by that point. I do think this whole growing up in Cleveland and growing up in a Jewish neighborhood meant that I had internalized a lot of defense mechanisms. A lot of stuff just rolled off my back instead of really sort of festering with me. 

It was all of the things we always talk about, of course: Being the only woman on a team, being the only person of color, and trying to make my voice heard. I experienced all of it. But it didn’t paralyze me in the way that I think something like that sometimes can, because I had already lived so much of it before I got to the law firm. 

You raised two kids as a single mother, while building an incredible career in the law and government. How did you make it all work? 

My son, Patrick, was born when I was 31. I became a single mom pretty much right away. My husband and I separated not long after I went back to work from my maternity leave. Seven years later, I adopted Emma from China. 

I made it work because I had really good childcare. This is something you really luck into – and, of course, I had the means to pay for it because I was working at a law firm. Our childcare providers were wonderful and they essentially became part of our family. I could trust that my kids were fine when I was working. The truth is that if your childcare isn’t sorted out, you are unsettled. There is a part of your brain that can’t focus on the work; a part of your brain that remains focused on the sick child or the new babysitter. I remember that feeling well. 

Right now, we are headed into a childcare crisis on top of the healthcare crisis with the pandemic. And that’s in addition to the economic crisis and the racial justice crisis. Childcare businesses in America operated on a very thin margin, and we’ll see more and more go out of business. Doctors and lawyers will find a way to hire childcare. But lower and middle income women who are dependent upon our school systems, the network of childcare centers and in-home childcare providers, will lose. Those options are evaporating. How can these women go to work? How can they work and run remote schooling and take care of their kids? 

The childcare crisis will impact our overall economy, too.  It will undo several generations of progress on the increase in women’s labor force participation. And our economy as a whole will lose the talent and resources. This is a collective problem, not the problem of individual mothers. It is not something women should figure out on their own, but something society should address as a public policy imperative and employers should address as a business imperative. 

Tell us about your work with the White House Council on Women and Girls

When I joined the Obama administration, I wanted to work on women’s issues among other things. It has always been my passion. Valerie Jarrett and I decided to create the White House Council on Women and Girls because we didn’t want to silo those issues into an office. If you create a council like we did, you bring in every cabinet agency, major White House policy office, and more. President Obama charged every member with thinking about women and girls. 

I think some of the women’s groups were a bit skeptical at the beginning. We asked them to give us a chance to see if it would work. And I think it was pretty successful. I think at the end of our eight years, most women’s groups would agree that they had more access to the president than they had ever had before. Valerie and I were both at every key meeting and we were able to get more done because we could work across the federal government with stakeholders. 

I would also add that during my time with the Council,  I learned a lot about just how fragmented the women’s rights movement is in America. Everyone is working in silos. The healthcare people don’t talk to the violence against women people don’t talk to the gender equity people in the workplace. And, yet, it is also true that women don’t live their lives in silos. The same woman is trying to figure out how to get her kids into school while she’s dealing with the fact she’s got to get a mammogram and she’s dealing with a sick parent and she doesn’t have equal pay in her job. And the idea that she has to go to five different places to find out information or get advocacy is crazy.

Since the end of the administration, I’ve been working with the United State of Women to try to bring together the different organizations working on women’s issues. It is an umbrella organization and we work to honor all of the various initiatives that groups are working on across the spectrum. We want to make sure everyone is both connected to each other and then connected as well to the grassroots activists across the country who are doing this great work.

To hear the full interview and learn more from Tina, join us at What’s Her Story!