Typically I work from home, which means that I usually spend (at least) the first few hours of each day working in my pajamas. But Monday was far from a typical day! I was up bright and early, dressed and out the door for a 7:00 am start at a special event I was thrilled to be part of in person: the White House Summit on Working Families in Washington D.C., hosted by the White House, the Center for American Progress, and the U.S. Department of Labor.
The Summit focused on highlighting ways to ensure we create a 21st century workplace that works for all Americans, including increased access for both women and men to paid leave , a decent wage, and work flexibility. The event brought together leaders from business and labor, policy makers, advocates, academics, economists, as well as workers from across the country to participate in the dialogue.
At 1 Million for Work Flexibility, we know that working families are struggling to meet the demands of their jobs and their families. And we know that work flex is a win-win for employers and employees. But it was incredibly exciting to see this issue highlighted with such a high profile, to an audience of more than 1,500 attendees who are equally passionate about the need for workplace change (including folks from many of our 1MFWF Supporter organizations, such as Working Mother, the Boston College Center for Work & Family, Fathers, Work and Family, Mom Corps, Life Meets Work, the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project, MomsRising, and Family Values @ Work).
Speakers at the White House Summit on Working Families
The day’s list of speakers was so remarkable it was almost overwhelming, with a 60-page packet of corresponding bios. From government, speakers included President Obama himself, along with Vice President Joe Biden, First Lady Michelle Obama, Dr. Jill Biden, Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez, Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi, Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett, and Assistant to the President Tina Tchen.
From business, they included the CEOs of EY, PwC, Care.com, Goldman Sachs, Johnson & Johnson, and BET. From media, they included Claire Shipman and Robin Roberts of ABC, Katty Kay of BBC, and Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC. Christina Hendricks, Maria Shriver, and Gloria Steinem were featured speakers as well.
Why We Need Greater Work Flexibility
Among this diverse group, everyone agreed that while American families have changed over the past few decades, our laws and workplaces haven’t kept up. They emphasized the numbers that demonstrate the need for increased work flexibility, including:
- More than 40 percent of mothers are now the sole or primary source of income for their household.
- 60 percent of dads in dual-earner couples report work-family conflict (compared to 35 percent in 1977).
- Approximately 40 million Americans provide unpaid care to an elderly relative or friend each year.
- 49 percent of parents have passed up a job they thought would conflict with their family obligations.
- 9 in 10 Americans believe employers should offer workers flexibility as long as their work gets done.
And the Council of Economic Advisers announced that policies such as work flexibility “lead to higher labor force participation, greater labor productivity and work engagement and better allocation of talent across the economy.”
Leaders Share Why They’ve Needed Work Flexibility
Beyond these facts and figures, what struck me most was the stories we heard from these leaders about their own personal struggles with work and family conflict.
President Obama acknowledged that because he lives “above the store, so to speak” he doesn’t currently have to wrestle with a commute, but before he became President, he and Michelle had many of the same conversations about juggling that most parents can relate to. Michelle Obama once even brought then-4-month old daughter Sasha to an interview with her (she got the job).
Vice President Biden shared that as a new member of the Senate, he was honest with his constituency about the fact that he would miss 13% of Senate votes in order to be home with his family when faced with a choice between a procedural vote and time with his children. Neera Tanden, President of the Center for American Progress, spoke of how she was able to prioritize her daughter’s pre-K graduation over a work commitment because of her understanding boss at the time (Hillary Clinton!), but emphasized that we shouldn’t have to “win the boss lottery” to be able to make choices that put family first.
What’s Next for Work Flexibility: Get Involved
These stories demonstrate that people at the top face similar struggles and tough choices as the rest of us—even with the slew of resources available to them that most people can only dream of.
And we can’t just work harder, or parent better, in order to see improvement—the conflict we experience isn’t because of a personal failing, but instead because the workplace itself has to change. Valerie Jarrett, President Obama, Michelle Obama, and Tina Tchen all powerfully emphasized, “You are not alone” in facing challenges due to an out-dated work model.
They also said that the Summit is just the start of the push for change. Movements don’t happen in a day—they take persistence. And we as individuals can’t just keep operating as if things will fix themselves; we have to be the leaders and the trailblazers, and we have to unite to create a stronger voice for change.
What better way to do that than by being part of the 1 Million for Work Flexibility. If the White House Summit on Working Families was just the start, join us so that together, we can be the momentum that finally moves the needle.
photo credit: Emma Plumb—President Obama speaking at the Summit