Valerie Jarrett: Women in America Report Could Change Policies

Women in America is a report which, for the first time in recent history, pulls together information from across the Federal agencies on how women are faring in the U.S. today.
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To celebrate Women's History Month, I sat down in the West Wing of the White House with Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, to discuss Women in America, a report which, for the first time in recent history, pulls together information from across the Federal statistical agencies to compile baseline information on how women are faring in the United States today and how these trends have changed over time. This is the first such federal initiative since 1963, when the Commission on Status of Women, established by President Kennedy and chaired by Eleanor Roosevelt, produced a report on the conditions of women. The PDF of the report is available here.

Rahim Kanani: Given that it's been almost 50 years since a report this comprehensive was produced about the status of women and girls in the United States, what sparked another study of this magnitude?

Valerie Jarrett: From day one, President Obama has made improving the quality of life for woman a top priority. It's why he created the White House Council on Women and Girls that I'm so proud to chair. Our directive was to look across the board at all of the federal agencies and determine what we could do to improve the quality of life for women and girls. And in that process, we discovered that there really hadn't been a comprehensive analysis done since 1963. Over the last year, we've been thinking through what were the appropriate topics to cover and how best to bring together the information in a way that would most likely inform policy and program decisions going forward, not just for the federal government, but for public policy experts, employers, people in the healthcare field, people in the criminal justice system, and a wide range of stakeholders.

So that's why we focused on five key pillars in this report: people and families and income; employment; education; health; and crime and criminal justice. And for the first time, our report tells a really complete story.

And I think, traditionally, when the federal government has gathered statistics, it's been done in silos, so every agency really focuses on the statistics that are important to that agency. For the first time, we really worked together as a team and thought about it from the perspective of girls and women. That's a very unusual shift for the federal government.

I think the President's passion for this topic comes from growing up with a single mother who worked, and watching how she struggled to make ends meet, managed her obligations of her career and her family, and raised her two children. The President also grew up with a grandmother, who was also a working mom and who hit a glass ceiling working at a bank. And of course, he is married to a woman with a career of her own, and has two young girls who he hopes will grow up in a world where they can compete on a level playing field. All of these life experiences continue to play an important role, and so I think the President's commitment to these issues comes from how he was raised and that's really what led to his support of the White House Council on Women and Girls, and this report.

Rahim Kanani: Earlier you noted that this report tells the story of women and girls in America. How would you characterize that story and how much progress has been made over the last several decades?

Valerie Jarrett: We have made a great deal of progress, but we still have a very long way to go. Regarding ways in which we have made progress, for example, women have now caught up with men in finishing college, and in fact, younger women have actually out-paced men. So that's very positive. Women now make up approximately half of the workforce -- again very positive. Two-thirds of all families are either headed by a single-head of household or two working parents, and particularly in this economically challenging time, that second income is more important than ever. However, women are still only earning 75 percent of what men are earning.

There was a reason why the President's first piece of legislation that he signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Act, and he's been a strong advocate of encouraging Congress to pass equal pay -- the Paycheck Fairness Act -- which is to try to create additional tools to level that playing field. It is outrageous that at this time in our country, women are still not paid as much as men.

Another important finding from the report is that women are going into fields that are not as lucrative as men and thus since very early on, the President has focused a spotlight on science, technology, engineering and math, and one of the charges of the White House Council on Women and Girls is to work with the administration and the private sector to figure out ways to encourage young girls to go into those fields.

For example, before this interview, I was at NASA headquarters speaking to 200 local students from elementary through high school, and one of the reasons why I went there was to really impress upon the young students how important it is to the President that they follow their dream and that they not be deterred from their passion of pursuing a field in space. And to do that, obviously, they need to go through the training in science, technology, engineering, and math and it was so heartening to see this auditorium full of young girls who are so passionate about it. My message from the President was follow that passion and you can do whatever you want to do.

So, not only is it terrific because going to space is pretty cool, but those fields are more lucrative, and so that's one way we can make sure that women generate additional income.

Another interesting finding in the report is that men spend more time at work than women, and they also spend more time at leisure than women. Women spend 30 percent more time doing household chores. No surprise. But women also spend more time volunteering in their community. And if you add up all of the hours of non-leisure time, women are working more than men. So I thought that was very interesting, and I was surprised about the voluntarism piece, but when you think about it, it makes sense.

Rahim Kanani: And what do those findings tell you?

Valerie Jarrett: We have to think creatively about changes that need to be made in the workplace to accommodate the growing demands on the work force. And another important study that I think we spoke about last time you were here was the report that the Council on Economic Advisors released last year that found that workplaces that are flexible are more productive and therefore we're not just doing it because it's the right thing to do, we're doing it because the new global marketplace really demands greater productivity and one way to accomplish that is through workplace flexibility.

Yesterday I spoke to a group of human resource executives from many of the largest companies. We're engaging with them to think through best practices of what they are doing in the private sector and what we're doing in the government to see what we can collectively do to create greater flexibility, and to try a wide range of different options to see what really works. One set of job requirements might lend itself to certain types of flexibility, and others, a different kind. And we should be willing to try new creative approaches to adopt to the changing composition of the workplace, and technology to support greater flexibility, as opposed to requiring everyone to conform to a traditional nine to five. And we think that that will help level the playing field for women.

The President has also made it a priority to include funding both in the Recovery Act and also in his budgets for greater childcare and greater eldercare. We're funding demonstration projects in states that will allow people to take family leave. Not as narrowly defined as the Family and Medical Leave Act, but for broader purposes. And we're also going forward on another front, as the Labor Department is doing additional statistical analysis to learn about what working folks today need in terms of flexibility because that's changed as well.

So I think that the report provides a very important framework for creating new policies and programs that will improve the lives of women and girls, but it also shows the work that is left to do.

Rahim Kanani: Now that we have this framework, how often should we commission an in-depth report like this to gauge the progress we're making over time?

Valerie Jarrett: That's a good question. Do you prepare large reports to cover a big span of time so that you can see the evolution? Yes. But also, we should be updating the report on an ongoing basis so that we don't have to wait 10, 20, 30, 40, or 50 years for another study. We intend to do both. We will determine where the holes are in this report and plug them, and make sure that we have all of the data necessary to inform our policy-making process. Through our White House Council on Women and Girls, we are working very closely with the Office of Budget Management and the Commerce Department, whose statistical analysis team is making sure that we're really thinking this through. And we're doing it on an ongoing basis because the world it changing very quickly and we can't wait another 50 years!

Rahim Kanani: Now that this report has been issued, highlighting many inequalities that still exist, you mentioned one of the priorities was to figure out where the holes are and begin to plug them, and in that context, what are some of the initiatives underway or on the horizon that the White House is engaged in to do just that?

Valerie Jarrett: The workplace flexibility issue is one where we knew going in that this was going to be an issue and the data proves the point. And so we're already off and running. STEM careers is another one, where we knew that girls weren't going into those fields, now we see that the inequality is still there in terms of pay and so we want to encourage the girls to go into those fields and at the same time we want to pass Paycheck Fairness so that employers are going to be held accountable for paying women unequally.

In the healthcare field, we found out, and it's actually a surprise to me, but women have certain chronic illnesses and so although they live longer than men, many times not as healthy as they should. Whether you have arthritis or asthma, or another chronic condition, one of the advantages of the Affordable Care Act is you can go in for these routine checkups and have them covered by insurance. This is vitally important because many times, people don't go to the doctor because their insurance doesn't cover it.

We just had a meeting today on youth violence, focusing on teenagers, teenage girls, college-aged girls and the sexual assault that goes one. And so the report will help us identify additional data that we want to have collected at the federal level, as well as how we work with the states as they collect data to make sure that we are capturing as much useful data as possible. We are working with all of the different stakeholders, to inform and develop new programs that will help combat those incidents of violence.

Rahim Kanani: You talked about knowing many of these inequalities before this report was commissioned and produced, so was the goal of this report then to not only raise awareness and surface these issues, but equally if not more so to provide the necessary proof to make the case for changes in domestic policy?

Valerie Jarrett: Yes. For example, if we are to make our case about why paycheck fairness is so important, it's really helpful to have the data to prove it to Congress so they don't challenge our undergoing assumptions. If we're trying to prove that women have certain illnesses that need to be covered by insurance, now we have the data that shows that for certain illnesses are more prevalent in women than men.

Rahim Kanani: This report, then, is very much about producing the necessary evidence to advocate for genuine policy reforms.

Valerie Jarrett: The President believes our policies and programs should be evidence-based. This report provides important evidence that the federal government, as well as the private sector, employees, and other stakeholders, need to make sound policies. We really encourage everybody to go online and read the report because everyone should feel invested in improving the quality of life for women and girls. And so the principal of a school can pick it up and read it and see, oh my goodness, what should I be doing to encourage girls to go into STEM fields. It could be an employer who realizes women are really spending a lot of time working outside of the office, but that they're not contributing to society. A big part of it, and we say this all of the time, is that these issues are no longer women's issues, they're family issues. They're community issues, they're national issues because women make up such a big part of our population now, and what affects a woman, affects us all. And so we are also encouraging, just as you have always taken an interest in this, we need to get men involved in the dialogue as well because they are a key partner in this.

Rahim Kanani: Thank you so much, I really appreciate your time.

Valerie Jarrett: You're more than welcome.

Cross-posted with World Affairs Commentary

This interview is part of an in-depth series on advancing women and girls worldwide. Previous interviews include Melanne Verveer, U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women's Issues, Helene Gayle, President and CEO of CARE USA, Nancy Brinker, Founder and CEO of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, and Tiffany Dufu, President of The White House Project. Future interviews include Maria Eitel, President and CEO of the Nike Foundation, Lynn Rosenthal, White House Advisor on Violence against Women, and many more. To follow the series please visit World Affairs Commentary for more information.

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