Exclusive Interview: Tina Tchen, former Executive Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls
After 22 years as a partner in a Chicago law firm, Tina Tchen was hired by the Obamas to spearhead their work on gender equality. She tells Matt Ross how far the country progressed under its visionary First Family – and how much further it has to go
“We’re one of two countries in the world – the other is Papua New Guinea – which have no paid parental leave policy of any kind,” says Tina Tchen, the former chief of staff to Michelle Obama. “We don’t even have a paid sick pay policy: people have to either come into work sick, or lose pay.”
In the USA, employment law makes few concessions to the needs of working parents – and this, says Tchen, creates “structural barriers in the way work is organised, forcing women to make choices at critical junctures in their careers.” When people are forced to choose between progressing at work or enjoying a family life, she adds, “increasingly women either leave the workforce, or voluntarily choose not to advance further.”
In particular, these decisions face female federal civil servants considering the leap into the Senior Executive Service: the management cadre sitting just below presidential appointees. For whilst the step up brings extra salary and responsibilities, SES staff move off the civil service payroll and lose further employment protections – “so a lot of women choose not to take the promotion,” Tchen says regretfully.
Given these tough employment conditions, it speaks volumes about the talent and determination of American women that the USA sits 6th in the 2016 Global Public Sector Women Leaders Index – which ranks G20 countries by the proportion of females in senior civil service positions. This result is also a testament to the work of President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, and Tchen herself – a former corporate lawyer from Chicago who, after a stint running the White House Office of Public Engagement, in 2011 became an assistant to the president, Michelle’s chief of staff, and the executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls (WHCWG).
By every means necessary
The Obamas arrived in the White House determined to improve equality of opportunity – and Michelle, a fellow Chicago lawyer, was particularly passionate about breaking down the barriers facing women in their working lives. This, Tchen explains, meant fighting on many fronts simultaneously. “There’s no single bullet that will effect the change,” she says. “It’s about creating lots of changes, some large – like maternity leave policies – and some quite small, like training or how you measure things or what you celebrate. And this is a generational issue; it will only get addressed with a lot of sustained effort over time.”
The WHCWG was Obama’s tool for creating that sustained effort: it coordinated federal agencies’ work and ensured that new government policies would not disadvantage women, whilst pushing public bodies to address women’s issues within their workforces and policy remits.
The council also pushed private businesses to improve employment rights and tackle discrimination in recruitment and promotion – for as Tchen argues, getting more women into the workforce strengthens both companies’ performance and households’ incomes. To maximise turnover and productivity, businesses must stop wasting the potential of their female employees: “In economic terms, this is just as important as an infrastructure bill,” she says. “If we’re going to compete in a global economy, we need to be aware of the disadvantage we’re at.”
As the economy continues to recover from the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis, Tchen adds, businesses are realising they need to offer more flexible, family-friendly roles in order to attract a new generation of ambitious, highly-skilled women. “Many companies see the writing on the wall because now that the unemployment rate is down, companies need to compete for workers,” she says. “There’s a lot of research to show that the millennial generation are focused on these issues, and make decisions on where to work based on that.”
On a mission
Much of the WHCWG’s work on workforce issues, though, was designed to improve women’s position within public sector workforces. Tchen’s team began by working on new laws setting out universal workforce rights and protections – but the Republicans blocked every attempt to strengthen employment legislation. “We ran into a roadblock in Congress,” she recalls. So the Council instead began working with state and city authorities, persuading 38 of them to introduce “some form of paid sick leave or parental leave”.
Meanwhile, Obama used executive orders to introduce paid maternity leave for staff in the executive office of the president. But to help improve life for women across the federal workforce, Tchen and the president had to adopt a different set of techniques.
In its systems of recruitment and promotion, says Tchen, “the federal system is set up to be objective. But we know that it’s not: no system created by human beings is really objective! There remains an element of gender discrimination that exists among people who don’t see women as candidates for advancement – especially in the military or national security or scientific spaces.” So the WHCWG worked with big federal employers – all of which were represented on the Council – to change working practices and expectations across the workforce.
“We offered training to help women get into the Senior Executive Service,” Tchen recalls. “We began measuring and reporting on diversity in the agencies. And we enlisted business schools, both to improve diversity among their students and to look at management research and techniques.”
The tone at the top
Obama was aware, Tchen says, that “the leadership, the tone at the top, matters; that if your senior leadership is diverse, that will translate down through the organisation”; so he carefully appointed women as agency chiefs and presidential advisers. “He placed a premium on diversity; that was known as a value he had,” she adds. “He appointed more women to the federal judiciary than all his predecessors combined, and at one point all our national security advisers were women; we championed them as examples of how, even in the national security space, there are tremendous women leaders out there.”
Among the Council’s other initiatives was a set of measures to tackle the pay gap. Federal bodies were persuaded to disregard job applicant’s salary histories in making job offers – tackling a practice that, Tchen says, was “perpetuating lower salaries throughout women’s careers”. The first bill that Obama signed into law was the ‘Lily Ledbetter Act’, which abolished the time limit on suing employers over pay discrimination. And the president issued executive orders barring government suppliers from taking action against staff who revealed their salaries – a disciplinary tool used by some US companies to prevent people from identifying pay disparities.
Between 2009 and 2017, the Obamas and Tina Tchen worked across a huge breadth of topics to support equal opportunities for women – transforming the demographics of the federal leadership cadre, improving conditions for women in the workforce, and strengthening ambitions and expectations among the wider public. But in the US system, the election of a new president – armed with powers of appointment and executive order – can lead to much sharper changes of direction than in countries with a permanent civil service leadership. The new administration has already deleted the Council’s web pages, and has not announced the body’s fate; does Tchen fear that Donald Trump will dismantle the Council’s policies and reverse its achievements?
Keeping up the pressure
“I’m not privy to what they’re planning,” she replies carefully. “And I’m heartened by the fact that, regardless of whether the White House Council on Women and Girls continues, the Trump administration has talked about paid leave, childcare, women in business. It remains to be seen what the policies will look like, but it’s a sign of progress that even a Republican administration knows that it needs to talk about these issues.”
Like many Democrats, Tchen appears keen not to antagonise the White House’s new occupants. But she is also confident that the Council’s achievements will prove resilient: many of its federal workforce policies “changed culture and the way that agencies operate in ways that will not be that easy to reverse,” she comments.
The Council’s breadth of membership across the organisational landscape, Tchen adds, means that “we had people working on these issues in every single agency – and not just on big national priorities like healthcare or violence against women, but also within each [policy] area: in energy, in transport, in science. And that started to fundamentally change the DNA of the federal agencies. When you have that kind of change happening, it’s hard to say ‘that’s all gone’ with a stroke of a pen.”
Whatever happens at the national level, Tchen believes, the Council’s messages have been heard and received in many communities, businesses, and state and city administrations. So she’s optimistic that America will continue to make progress on women’s issues – including those structural issues that, having proved beyond even the Obamas’ reach, continue to throw up challenges for America’s millions of able, talented women. “Work isn’t organised in the same way as it was in the last century,” Tchen comments. “It’s organised as it was two centuries ago! We’re still living with that construct of what comprises a working day and a working week.”
“This is the 21st century,” she concludes. “We can do better – and for the wellbeing of our workers and our families, we must do better.”
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