Closing The Gap

Time's Up lawyer, former Obama chief of staff: 'We're a lot of years away from gender equality'

Tina Tchen, former Assistant to the President, former Chief of Staff to the First Lady and Director of the White House Council on Women and Girls and attorney behind the Time's Up legal defense fund.

Employers may boast a slight increase in staff diversity and data may show women gaining ground in male-dominated industries, but according to Tina Tchen, the lawyer spearheading the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund and Michelle Obama's former chief of staff, the surface has barely been scratched.

"We're a lot of years away from gender equality," she said at the 2018 Catalyst Awards Conference, which featured panel discussions with corporate execs on workplaces that empower women.

Tchen dismisses that notion that it's the government's responsibility to advocate for women by passing laws, pointing to its bleak track record.

She recalled her horror when she joined the Obama administration in 2009 and was informed by a White House staffer that government employees are not entitled to paid maternity leave — a situation that she set out to rectify by advocating for all eligible workers to be granted paid family leave. Tchen also fought for the passage of the Equal Pay Act, which prohibits the federal government from asking prospective candidates about prior salaries. The bill was defeated by two votes.

If you have diverse and equitable workforces, you are going to have less sexual harassment.
Tina Tchen
Time's Up Legal Defense Fund

Instead, Tchen calls on the private sector to attack these issues head-on, particularly through an increased focus on promoting women to leadership roles. "The fastest way to achieve this diversity is going to be with companies stepping up to the plate," she says. "Especially in this current environment."

Tchen tells CNBC Make It that in order to create workplaces where women can thrive, companies must commit to four key actions:

1. Be brutally honest

"We have to honestly admit that what we've been doing for the past three decades hasn't worked," says Tchen."We know it hasn't worked because the numbers on diversity are moving at a glacial pace."

Citing research from McKinsey, Tchen notes that women make up just 6.4 percent of CEOs at Fortune 500 companies and 12 percent of board members.

She also highlights the fact that "literally every company in America," utilizes sexual harassment training in the workplace, in accordance with Supreme Court rulings, to no avail.

"Look where we are," she says. "That hasn't prevented sexual harassment from occurring...and being very prevalent in many of our workplaces."

2. Be willing to examine challenges beyond sexual harassment

Tchen says that companies must realize that sexual harassment is the result of a more deeply-rooted problem, rather than the problem itself.

"Sexual harassment is the end of the process. It is the symptom of having a workforce that's actually not truly diverse and equitable," explains Tchen. "If you have diverse and equitable workforces, you are going to have less sexual harassment."

Furthermore, leaders should not concentrate solely on addressing sexual harassment, while ignoring the other barriers that keep women from progressing in the workforce. Tchen mentions hurdles like equal pay, paid leave and fair promotion and retention practices.

"All of those things need to be looked at holistically," she says.

A Time's Up billboard on Sunset Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA
Gabriel Olsen | Getty Images

3. Recognize that these aren't just 'HR issues'

A company's HR department should not be alone in pursuing solutions for female employees.

"These are core corporate governance issues," says Tchen. The "tone" must start at the very top and flow through the entire organization.

Fairness and equality for employees have to be considered key success metrics for a business, just as profit and revenue growth are, says Tchen. She points to findings which show that companies with a high percentage of female leaders report a higher return on investments.

"These are going to be key to your company's future," says the attorney.

4. Go beyond the law

"I say this as a lawyer," says Tchen. "We have oftentimes stuck to what the law requires and no more."

That's problematic, because the law doesn't prohibit very much.

Tchen gives Title VII as an example, which prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex and national origin. However, this law was a compromise, she says, and doesn't cover many employers and employees. Nor does it cover a range of behaviors such as bullying, which Tchen notes is a major problem that many of her clients face.

"Bullying, if it's not in a sexual nature, is not outlawed by the law," explains the attorney. "But it can be the thing that's creating a toxic environment [and] that is preventing women and minorities and other diverse people from staying, and prospering and growing."

Tchen emphasizes that executives must create a culture and instill a set of values that clearly dictate what the company stands for.

"It's going to be an aspiration that is beyond the legal minimum of what's out there," she says.

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