Time's Up CEO Tina Tchen, Bad Robot Co-CEO Katie McGrath Talk Empirical, Ethical Case for Equity

Kate McGrath and Tina Tchen - Getty - H 2019
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Michelle Obama's former chief of staff and J.J. Abrams' partner spoke about how women of color are key to creating institutional and cultural change.

Tina Tchen has only been Time's Up's new president and CEO for four days, but she's already thinking about the organization's long game. 

"We are in this for the long haul," Tchen told the crowd gathered on Wednesday morning as part of Fast Company's Innovation Festival.

The former chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama and co-founder of the Time's Up Legal Defense Fund was speaking about the current, unrelenting news cycle, which can see important issues quickly overshadowed and forgotten, leaving little time for culture-changing attitude shifts at the core of Time's Up's mission and work.

Appearing alongside the co-CEO of J.J. Abrams' Bad Robot and early Time's Up organizer Katie McGrath, Tchen began to lay out how the organization already has and will continue to fight around that hurdle to create institutional and cultural change. That work has started with building a stronger organizational structure within the advocacy nonprofit.

As a group with convening power and a recognizable brand "that speaks to your average person," Tchen said, the key to Time's Up's work has been figuring out how to situate the organization as more than just a brand.

"We didn't really have our agenda scoped out. We didn't really have what it was," Tchen said of early meetings around the formation of the advocacy group. "The agenda has gotten fleshed out in terms of the industry verticals that need to come together … we're developing the policy changes that need to happen."

While Time's Up may be better known for its connection to the entertainment industry, both women addressed how the organization's broader agenda centers on issues and policies beyond those faced by actresses in Hollywood — including the experiences of women in advertising, health care, fast food, farming and at start-ups. Helping women across these industries, especially those who are less likely or safe to organize, has resulted in several initiatives.

Among them is developing a sexual harassment and assault investigation process for companies that is more trauma-informed and culling data to hold candidates accountable for policy change. Tchen noted that this last effort resulted in a report, which concluded that only eight questions among more than 4,000 asked at 123 primary debates in 20 years were focused on policies regarding sexual harassment, childcare, equal pay or paid leave.

"We have staff supporting the women in entertainment and advertising and health care," Tchen said. "I also want us to be in and working with the women who don't have the time to come together but are suffering. So we're talking about the $15 an hour, or less, $7 an hour, fast-food worker or hotel janitor or the person who's working in the fields picking fruit."

In entertainment specifically, Time's Up's work has trickled into the creative process both in terms of the narratives and who's making them. McGrath referenced Shonda Rhimes' work with her Shondaland series, as well as Apple TV+'s The Morning Show, as examples of how Hollywood can tackle onscreen the same issues Time's Up is addressing offscreen. But it's not just the stories that have to change, the Bad Robot co-CEO said. It's also who the storytellers and gatekeepers are.

"There was a Harvard Business Review study a year, or so ago that said ... single-sex leadership teams make the right decision, I think, 58 percent of the time, and gender-diverse leadership teams make the right decision 72 percent of the time. In that gap, there's money to be made," McGrath said. "In all these environments — whether it's government, in the workplace — it's all about creating balance, ultimately."

During the panel, the question of who should be included in these efforts was raised, with McGrath acknowledging that Gloria Steinem's challenge "to be linked, not ranked" is the organization's "super fuel." For her, that means women of color and trans women, who have broader insights into how inequity is operating, should take the lead. In turn, McGrath, who's also married to Abrams, said white women take up supporting roles while regularly examining how power, "which has been generally established to be white males, has benefited us."

"For me, the most important work has had almost less to do with gender and more to do with race," McGrath told the panel audience. "I think that this movement actually can only be led by women of color. White women have to be a part of it for sure, but it can only really truly be led [by women of color] because [white women] don't have the same muscles. We don't have the same insights. We have adjusted ours to kind of, you know, fit with the power that exists, and I think women of color, particularly, have never had that benefit."

Even as the advocacy group looks to both expand and deepen its present work, Tchen and McGrath said that in the future, focusing on the role men, young women and girls play in the conversation is on their radar. For Tchen, creating space for "well-meaning men" invested in addressing equity and parody, but "who have never been trained themselves to have the language on how to have these conversations," is essential to solving the problem. As is reaching out to the younger women who are watching the organization's various moves.

"The other thing that I found — and this has happened over the course of the last two years — that was unexpected is actually the number of college students and young women who know Time's Up. And this a phenomena because they're following all our actresses," Tchen said. "Hollywood has an outsized effect, not just because they are well known. But because you guys are our storytellers, right?"
Tchen noted that people are emotionally moved by the stories of those they feel a connection to, and often, that can be the people they see onscreen. Women like Tarana Burke, who started the #MeToo hashtag and movement, are also responsible for the attitude shift, Tchen said.

But ultimately for real change to happen, McGrath said, the 95 percent of male CEOs and their corporate leadership have to get involved. Getting them to understand that focusing on their workplace culture — including safety, dignity and equity — will ultimately reward them is "critical."

"There is an empirical case, beyond just the ethical one, for what I think Time's Up is looking to promote and champion in this new phase," McGrath said. "None of this is rocket science. And so any board or any CEO who tells you it's just really hard, it's just horseshit. It's just — it's just not real."