Recording Academy Appoints Tina Tchen, Michelle Obama's Former Chief of Staff, to Chair Task Force

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Tina Tchen

Tchen, also a Time's Up activist, spoke exclusively with Billboard: "The music industry is one of many industries in which these exact issues are being called out and discussed in a way and with a vigor that hasn't happened before."

Five weeks after Recording Academy president and CEO Neil Portnow announced plans to establish an independent task force to address female advancement in the music industry, the organization has appointed Tina Tchen, who served as chief of staff to former first lady Michelle Obama, to chair the task force, the Academy tells Billboard, and has lined up about half of the 15- to 20-member team.

Focused on female inclusion and diversity issues, the group will be charged with identifying "the various barriers and unconscious biases faced by underrepresented communities throughout the music industry and, specifically, across Recording Academy operations and policies,” looking at governance, hiring and promotion practices, membership, awards and the Grammys telecast, the Academy said in a statement.

Though some in the industry wanted a record company executive to chair the task force, Tchen’s outsider status reflects the Academy’s intent to keep it independent and objective.

"The fact that she lacks business ties to the music industry ensures her objectivity as chair,” Portnow said in a statement. "In this moment, the Recording Academy can do more than reflect what currently exists; we can help lead the industry into becoming the inclusive music community we want it to be -— a responsibility that the board and I take seriously. Tina Tchen is an accomplished advocate for women and an impact-oriented leader versed in convening disparate stakeholders for a common purpose."

During her eight-year tenure with the Obama administration, Tchen served as an assistant to President Barack Obama, executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, and chief of staff to the first lady. Established by President Obama, the council dedicated itself to guaranteeing that the needs of women and girls would be addressed in the development of all government agency policies and programs.

A partner in the Buckley Sandler LLP law firm, Tchen presently heads up its Chicago office and advises companies on gender inequity, sexual harassment and lack of diversity. She also played an integral role in the establishment of the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which provides legal support to victims of sexual harassment, assault and abuse in the workplace.

Working in consultation with Tchen and various industry executives and music creators — including those who signed letters demanding change and transparency — the Recording Academy developed the scope of the task force and will complete its formation in the coming weeks. In addition to executives and creators, the 15- to 20-member group will draw from the ranks of academia and experts in diversity in entertainment.

Task force members will not receive any payment or financial incentives. However, the Academy will support the group’s operational costs and any additional approved expenses, such as research, consultants and administration. Tchen will lead all task-force operations, slating the plans, schedules and recommendations needed to implement the group’s objectives.

Tchen talked to Billboard about how she got involved and how she plans to attack in the latest chapter of her 30-plus-year commitment to fostering gender equity and diversity and quelling sexual misconduct.

How did you come to the Recording Academy’s attention?

I had worked with the Recording Academy when we were in the White House through the "In Performance” music series. We had a great working relationship on those events. Neil Portnow called and asked if I would consider being involved with the task force. As the staff there knows, these are issues I care deeply about, what I’ve been working on my entire adult life.

Might not having a music industry background prove to be a disadvantage?

It’s probably both a blessing and a curse here, in the sense that I come to this as a music fan but not a music industry insider. But I know these issues very well in lots of other contexts. I think that was viewed as an opportunity to be able to work with all different aspects of the music industry without any particular relationship to any of them.

What is your track record in tackling these kinds of problems?

I'm a lawyer by training and practice, having worked 23 years at Chicago law firm Skadden Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom as a corporate litigator. But I really come to this issue as a corporate governance lawyer and not as an employment lawyer. I left Skadden in January 2009 to join the Obama administration. For the first two years, I headed the White House Office of Public Engagement, the outreach office for the president. During that first year, [senior advisor] Valerie Jarrett and I worked with President Obama to create the White House Council on Women and Girls. The council included all of the federal agencies and all of the major White House policy offices.

[Working at] the largest employer on the planet, essentially, we put a tremendous emphasis on gender and diversity, with working-family issues a big part of our overall agenda. We hosted the first ever White House summit on working families in 2014 to promote policies and practices like equal pay and paid leave, the kinds of things that would break down barriers to true diversity in leadership, the work force and entrepreneurship across the board. We followed that up with the United State of Women Summit, which we did as our concluding event at the end of [Obama’s] eight years in office.

Since leaving the White House, I have continued this work on my own efforts. We just announced last week that we will hold another United State of Women Summit in Los Angeles on May 5 and 6 to further promote the broad range of issues confronting women and changemakers across the country. Buckley Sandler’s Workplace Cultural Compliance Practice counsels companies on the broad range of issues that need to be addressed. It’s not just sexual harassment. You have to break down the barriers that have structurally kept women and people of color out of leadership positions, corporate settings, not-for-profit settings, union settings and elsewhere.

I’ve also been leading the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund efforts. It’s been so exciting to see that come together as a needed set of resources for people who suffered from sexual harassment. We have raised $21 million just since January 1 from more than 20,000 donors and have received 1,700 requests for help. But the fund isn’t just for the entertainment industry.

To their credit, women in the entertainment industry wanted to create something that would help working people across all industries. So the fund is really there to help low-income folks, especially low-wage workers. We’ve received requests for help from over 60 different industries.

During your time at the White House, what results were achieved on the federal front in terms of diversity, pay equity and other issues?

The federal government wage gap is 11 cents, which is about half of what the national average is. I think that's due to changes like pay transparency. The federal policy is that everybody's pay is listed publicly so that people know what the pay is for the work that they're doing. We instituted a policy as well that prohibited federal employers from inquiring about prior salary when they’re hiring someone new into a position. It’s important to not perpetuate pay disparities that may have existed in someone's prior job. In 2016, after five years of study, we also issued a rule from the Department of Labor and Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for all employers to disclose their wages. Unfortunately, that's been repealed by the current administration, which I'm sorry to see.

What was your initial read on the public petition and subsequent letters calling for change following the Grammys?

The music industry is one of many industries in which these exact issues are being called out and discussed in a way and with a vigor that hasn't happened before. I'm really glad to see that. More than any individual person, the most important thing is that we need to look systemically at these issues and work together on systemic change. It takes everyone in a company, everyone in an institution, everyone in an industry to pull together to make these changes happen. I'm encouraged by the conversations that we're having in all industries and at all levels, from the C-suites down to the shop floor. That’s the kind of approach the Academy wants to take from all aspects of the recording industry.

What are you and the Recording Academy looking for as you search for the rest of your task force members?

We want to make sure that we have a balanced and diverse group that represents a lot of different viewpoints so that we can have as broad a range of input as possible. This is an important statement by the Recording Academy on the seriousness of its commitment. The music industry is such a key part of our culture that it needs to reflect our entire society.

Why has the task force process taken this long?

It's been less than two months since the Grammys. It's important to do these things right, and the composition of the task force is important. The seriousness and thoughtfulness with which the Recording Academy is approaching this is important. That is more important than trying to look for quick fixes, because there are no quick fixes here. It took us decades, if not centuries, to get to the place where we are around gender discrimination. And it's going to take us a while to get out of it.

Realistically, how quickly can true change happen in the music industry?

We need to see what kind of recommendations the task force will make. I'm a newcomer to the industry, so I can't speak from knowing all of the issues and all of the levers that we may have for making change. Gender discrimination has transcended time, geography and culture. It's been around in every kind of workplace, in our homes and schools. So it's going to take us longer than an awards cycle or two to really address these issues in any industry, because we're dealing with a broader cultural attitude around women, women in power and the quality of diversity. It’s going to take sustained effort and sustained conversation to keep this in the public eye even when it's not the topic of the day. We need to be diligent and patient but also have a real commitment to making changes. I look forward to doing that work with the Recording Academy.

This story ran exclusively on Billboard.

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