Tina Tchen, Adrienne Lawrence inspire women of color in the workforce

Lawrence, Tchen, and Gentles-Peart share on their own personal experiences as women of color in the workforce.

Jacquelyn Voghel, Editor-in-Chief

The intersection of race and gender in the workforce was brought to the forefront in a panel discussion with attorneys Tina Tchen and Adrienne Lawrence on Wednesday, March 28.

Tchen, who served as Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, assistant to President Obama, and executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls, is currently a partner at Chicago’s Buckley Sanders law firm and a leader in the Time’s Up initiative.

The path to Tchen’s success, however, was not without difficulty. As a child, Tchen grew up in a predominantly white suburb of Cleveland, where she had few opportunities to meet other Chinese Americans.

“I think as a woman of color, one of the things we need to do and something that’s hard to do as a young person is to find your voice, is to find a voice that is authentically yours,” Tchen said, adding that it is hard yet possible to find this voice “when you don’t have role models that look like you.”

As part of her work with the White House Council on Women and Girls, Tchen organized the first United State of Women Summit in 2016, which brought over 5,000 women together and included speakers such as then-President Obama, Michelle Obama, Shonda Rhimes, and Oprah Winfrey.

“The objective there was to really pull together all the issues affecting women and girls… because we experienced in the White House, there are many groups that talk about issues relating to women and girls, but they’re not really working together,” Tchen said.

She added, “They would all come to talk to us, and we were the glue holding it together, but we wanted to create some glue that would outlast us and outlast our time in office, so this summit was our first step.”

Lawrence, a legal analyst, attorney, and journalist, was driven by a longstanding passion for justice that eventually led her to attend law school and enter private practice.

Like Tchen, Lawrence also grew up in a mostly white community. In the past, Lawrence said that she had felt pressured to dress and act in a way that would not evoke negative stereotypes surrounding the black community, always putting forth her best efforts to appear “polished” and highly educated at work.

“There was a lot of concealing on my end in terms of other aspects of me, just because I was afraid to awaken stereotypes within the individual I was,” Lawrence said. However, Lawrence also began to overcome this tendency with time.

In response to an audience question, Lawrence said that she has persevered over challenges and moments of disappointment by using her knowledge and skills to help others.

Tchen later cited current youth movements as one of her personal sources of hope, particularly commending the efforts of Parkland students and the March for our Lives demonstration, calling young activists the “great hope of our future in this dark period that we’re living through.”

“Something has happened in our culture that raised those 18 year olds to be this way… and we should fan that and fuel that,” Tchen said.

In an interview with The Hawks’ Herald, Tchen elaborated that local efforts are often instrumental in creating large-scale change. 

If movements against sexual harassment are to continue to create change in the workplace, she said, this local engagement is instrumental in ensuring that structural inequalities, such as issues of pay, promotion, and retention among women and people of color, receive adequate attention.

“One of the things I learned in Washington is [that] actually most change does not happen from Washington,” Tchen said. “Most change happens elsewhere. It’s happening from local city councils and in state houses. It’s happening in people’s own communities, it’s happening in people’s own companies.”

This event was part of the university’s year-long “Talking About Race, Gender, and Power” series and was sponsored by the RWU Donor Fund to Increase Sexual Assault Awareness on College Campuses.