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Women, Work and Social Change

On Friday, October 31, I had the honor of participating in an intimate roundtable discussion about women and the economy with President Obama at the Rhode Island College (RIC) campus in Providence RI. This closed-door conversation included President Obama, Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, Senior Advisor to the President and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, Valerie Jarrett, 2 women entrepreneurs, a RIC junior, the president of RIC, a speech pathologist/new mom and myself. The conversation preceded the President’s remarks focusing on women and the economy.

The Larger Context
Today, women make up almost half of the U.S. workforce. More than half of U.S. undergraduate and graduate programs are comprised of women – meaning the educated workforce will soon be predominately women. Lastly, more women are primary wage earners within their households than ever before, yet the U.S. still lags in providing federal policy that supports this changing dynamic within the economy.

The President has a personal stake in creating policy to support women.  As a son of a single mom, he has first-hand experience on how difficult being a working mom can be. Moreover, he has two young daughters that he hopes will have the same opportunities as men.

My Personal Context
I am a mom to an 11-month old daughter who I want to serve as a good role model to. I have an advanced degree and work in a position at an organization that aligns with my personal values. Yet one day in late September of this year, I had hit a wall – I was exhausted trying to balance home life and a full time work schedule and couldn’t understand why financially my family is “still just getting by” despite our efforts. I felt like if I am struggling, I can only imagine how hard it must be for others that are less fortunate than me. So, I went to the white house website and wrote to the President. I had some ideas I wanted to share that I thought may help other middle class families like mine. Examples included raising the $5k pretax benefit for dependent care or perhaps offering federal subsidies to a wider range of families. 

On Columbus Day, I got a call from someone in President Obama’s office – she let me know he read my letter. She said it resonated with many, including the President and they wanted to learn more. When the President was scheduled to be in Providence, they asked me if there was any way I could clear my calendar so I could meet him and discuss women’s issue in the economy – my answer was “yes I can!”

The Conversation
The conversation with the President and his key advisors surfaced a number of themes imperative to creating change to better support women and families in this country. Here are the highlights:

  • Organizations across all industries need to create a culture of flexibility. It’s actually “good for business too!”
    Both women entrepreneurs talked about how they offer flexible work schedules and allow colleagues to work remotely. They emphasized the importance of creating a culture where family life and responsibilities are respected. This leads to ultra-productive, loyal employees, which is key to the bottom line as hiring and developing a new employee is much more costly than retaining existing ones. Valerie Jarrett further elaborated on this in her recent blog post.
  • Paid time off to care for a new baby is critical!
    Paid time off should not be restricted to just moms. Dads and partners need support too. My husband had a 12 week fully paid paternity leave which was a blessing for our family. My daughter was born prematurely and was in the hospital for 2 weeks after her birth. Having my husband present during this rocky time was critical. It gave him some quality bonding time with her arming him with the confidence he needed to make our parenting an equal partnership.
  • Quality child care is key as it’s the foundation for a bright future.
    In some parts of the US, daycare costs are more expensive than college tuition. Currently, my monthly dependent care costs equal almost the same amount as my monthly mortgage payment. I am lucky I can afford quality childcare, however my high costs mean that I do not have much money left over at the end of a month for savings. This scenario is quite common among middle-class Americans. Other countries, like France, have remedied this situation with federally supported daycare options. A poor French family can send their children to daycare/school where an affluent French family may send their children so all children, regardless of their economic status are on a level playing field with the same opportunity.
  • “Women deserve an honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work.”
    Lots of work is needed to make more progress on this front. Today, women still only make 78 cents to one dollar compared to men in the same positions. Just as important as federal legislation, we need to see more women in leadership roles. We talked in detail about getting more women into STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) careers, Fortune 500 companies and small business. Lastly, we need more mentorship for future women leaders. As an example of the power of mentorship, the RIC junior that was part of the conversation talked about how her mentor helped her discover she had a passion for Biochemistry, which is now her major. Not only is she set up to obtain a role in the Sciences, but the student is also paying it forward by volunteering as a math and science tutor for high school girls in Providence.

How Do We Create Change?
The conversation generated lots of great examples of how we can support women and families in the economy on three levels:

  1. Federal – What can federal government do to support women in the economy?  How can organizations within various industries be incentivized to be leaders in this area?
  2. State – What policies will support women in the economy in your respective states?
  3. Organizational – What does your organization do to support women and families?  What can it do better?

I know I am inspired to keep federal and state government accountable for creating policy that supports women and girls. At the organizational level, I want to engage my colleagues in the conversation. It’s important we have a culture that supports working families and we talk about what works well and what we need to change. I hope all organizations have these conversations to help move the needle on such an important issue. 

Change takes time, but I am willing to put in the legwork if it means my daughter will grow up knowing she has the same opportunities as everyone else. I want my daughter to be paid a fair wage for whatever she decides she wants to do for work. I want her to feel that she is supported in a way that helps her balance career and family life. And most importantly, I do not want her to feel her gender is in any way a disadvantage, but rather it is not an issue – that would be ultimate social impact.