Flexing the White House Women's Muscle: An Intimate Interview with Valerie Jarrett

BlogHer Original Post

It's not every day that I receive e-mail from someone at the White House, so when they contacted me last Monday about interviewing Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett in San Francisco, I had to scramble to make it work. The typical working mother's dilemma: I was planning to pick up my daughter at school that day at 3:05. Time of interview: 3:10. With my husband out of town, I sent out a series of messages seeking someone who could pick up my daughter. Hoping it would all work out but really in a bind, I did the unthinkable: I asked the White House if we could move the meeting.

Lucky for me, Valerie Jarrett has been there. A single mother, she worked hard to get to a point where the president of the United States seeks her counsel, and workplace flexibility is important to her. Though I knew this -- Ms. Jarrett chairs the White House Council on Women and Girls -- I had no idea at the time how committed she and her staff really are: They were both willing and able to move the meeting.

Visiting San Francisco for the first-ever Women and the Economy Summit, Jarrett is a part of a star-studded lineup of women, including Secretary of Health & Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The purpose of the summit, organized by the Asia-Pacific Economic Corporation (APEC) and the Bay Area Council, is to craft priorities that each participating country and organization can agree to work on independently and collectively. As Secretary Clinton said Friday in her speech, "the case for unlocking the potential of women and including them more fully in the economic life of our nations begins with an accounting of how women already are driving growth in our economies."

Valerie Jarrett Sarah Granger
Image: Sarah Granger

I showed up to the rescheduled interview, the door opened and Valerie greeted me warmly. Not what I expected, even after being told by other bloggers who had met Ms. Jarrett about how pleasant a person she is. We posed for a photo and then sat down to talk. Every interview with someone of her level proves so difficult to choose what to ask in a limited time, while providing ample context. Lucky for me, she was well prepared.

Thank you for taking the time to speak with me on behalf of the BlogHer community.

My pleasure to be here.

In your opinion, what's the most important thing American women need to understand right now about the economy, and how do we get the actual facts into their hands?

Well, they need to understand that the United States has been through a very, very tough period. We don't need to tell them that because they've experienced it firsthand themselves themselves -- people across the country are struggling. And they need to know that the president is absolutely committed each and every day to get up fighting on their behalf, and to put in place programs and initiatives that will help give our economy the jolt that it needs to get back on track.

The long-term sustainable health of our country rests with the private sector, but at times of enormous challenge, such as the one that we're going through right now, it's important for government to step in and do it's part. We can talk now or we can talk later about the American Jobs Act and why it's so important for the country and for everyone, and particularly for women.

Women need to become involved in the process. They need to be engaged. They need to be armed with the facts. We will do everything in our power -- doing interviews such as this -- to get the facts out. Everybody has a role to play. The president has a role to play. Congress has a role to play. Small, medium and large businesses around our country have a role to play and the American people have a role to play.

You're in town for the Women and the Economy Summit. What would you like to see come out of that?

First of all, just the fact that we are having the conference where women's issues are front and center as we tackle the challenge in bringing back our economies throughout the APEC region -- all of whom have suffered as a result of this downturn -- we're just delighted to see women front and center. This is the first time, and we're delighted that President Obama as the host -- the United States, of course is hosting the conference - would think it's important to begin the APEC season with this focus on women and the economy.

Women now make up half -- nearly half - the workforce in the United States. We are the ones who are growing small businesses, leaps and bounds, starting new companies. Women are graduating from college with a higher number percentage than men for the first time ever, but yet we still earn only 77 cents on the dollar, and we face an uphill battle for equality in pay, equality in opportunity, equality in jobs. What we're hoping will come out of the conference are very specific action items that we can all go back armed with the best practices that we discover in the course of this conference and agree upon a set of priorities that we can work on both individually and collectively.

One of the messages of my speech will be that we have to change the paradigm and we shouldn't look at this solely as a women's issue. We really have to look at it as a societal issue, a national issue, a global issue, and that in societies where women do well, the economies are generally doing very well. We have an enormous amount to contribute and greater efficiency and productivity in the workplace is what everybody's striving for, and appreciating the extraordinarily important role that women play in changing that paradigm is a part of what we want to accomplish as well.

New Census Bureau data was released this past Tuesday showing that the poverty rate is now up above 15%. Household income has decreased, and we all know women are more likely to be at poverty levels. What can be done to help these women?

A great deal. That's part of why the president is so aggressively selling the American Jobs Act. Beginning, for example, in the lame duck session at the end of last year, the president fought so hard to make sure that unemployment insurance was extended because so many women are unemployed. He fought hard to make sure that the earned income tax credit was a part of the package, the child tax credit was a part of the package, the college affordability credit was a part of the package, and that as we're looking forward with the American Jobs Act, he wants to continue the unemployment insurance, he wants to make sure that we are providing an incentive for the long-term unemployed to be hired.

Often times, women fall out of the workforce for a wide range of issues, and it's hard to get back in. This American Jobs Act will provide a $4000 incentive for every employee who is hired who has been unemployed for more than 6 months. That's very very important. Many women-owned businesses or small businesses, the American Jobs Act will have a payroll tax credit. We'll cut the payroll tax in half for small businesses. There are over 900,000 women-owned small businesses that will benefit from this. 4.8 Million women are unemployed. They will benefit from the insurance.

Right now, two thirds of all households either have a single head of household who's a woman or two working adults in the family. And in a tough economic climate, it's more important than ever that we have equal pay, because again, it's not the woman's salary that's benefiting her; it's important to the overall health and sustenance of the family, more so than ever before. That's why equal pay is so important -- to move women out of poverty.

So we have a whole safety net of programs that government should provide to insure that families who are struggling right now, families who are living in poverty, families who are looking for opportunities out of poverty can rely on government to give them that extra jump start that they need to lead a life of self sufficiency and contribute to the economy.

In this political and economic climate, climate how can we ensure programs for women -- like the Paycheck Fairness Act -- get their funding? (This question came from Erin Kotecki Vest, who previously interviewed Jarrett.)

The president is firmly committed to fighting for the Paycheck Fairness Act for the reasons I just stated. In a country as great as the United States, how on Earth can women not be paid the same amount as men? One of the studies that we did through the Council of Economic Advisors was looking at the issue of workplace flexibility. What we discovered is that flexible workplaces -- which benefit not just women, but men and families and community and society -- actually are more productive.

We shouldn't be looking at this as something that we are doing for benevolence for women. We should look at this as that we're creating an economy that is going to be more productive and more efficient and therefore competitive in a global marketplace. And the companies that are appreciating this importance and who are not looking at it as simply a women's issue but are looking at it as a good business issue are embracing workplace flexibility.

And I'd say the same thing with paycheck fairness. If you want to make sure the people who come to work feel appreciated and valued, want to have a sense of loyalty to their employer and who want to work and give you their absolute best, then you should pay them fairly. That's a fundamental core value in this country and yet we still have this disparity, so we still have work to do.

Now, we're not simply going to rely on the legislation. The president has established an equal pay task force within the administration, and we're looking at all kinds of creative ways, beginning with ourselves at the federal government -- to make sure we're paying women equally. And we want to highlight the best practices around the country from both the private and the public sector around this important issue of parity and fairness. So yes, we're in a challenging economic time, but you can certainly make a case that that's a time where it's more important than ever to be productive, and part of productivity is being fair.

Workplace flexibility is very important to me as someone who has been disabled twice now from injuries and as a mother. How do we actually achieve true workplace flexibility? How do we convince these companies and government as well? (Even though I know some of the agencies have policies in place -- people often don't feel comfortable taking advantage of them.)

We have to arm people with the statistics. So for employers, when we show them the data on how productivity has actually increased by having flexibility, they begin to understand: this could be good for business. We should go one step further and we should give them case studies of examples of where flexibility has worked in other comparable work environments so that they don't feel as though they were inventing the wheel and starting something for the first time.

We had a workplace flexibility conference at the White House last year and we invited a cross-section of experts and employers, and we highlighted testimonies from CEOs and from their employees. (See also: Morra Aarons-Mele's post on the forum.)

The CEO of Campbell's Soup -- I'll never forget him -- was there with a worker who had become pregnant and intended to quit her job because she didn't think she could continue with her current work arrangements and have a young child. She was a very valued employee, so it came to his attention and that of management. They designed the program to meet her needs. One of the things that I always advise employers is: Listen to your employees. Find out what their needs are. Because if you are in touch and in sync with them and you can craft a program that allows them to be a whole person.

I'm a single mom and I raised my daughter alone, and I know how many times I struggled and felt like I was just hanging on by my fingertips. But I was so lucky to always have a boss who appreciated how important my daughter was to me. And I was always very clear about how important she was to me, that she was my priority. So I was able to have that contract clear from the very beginning.

A lot of women a lot of women can't afford that because they are stuck, and particularly at the low income level, you are vulnerable. And so we need to have champions on behalf of those women, and we need to put a spotlight on who's doing it well and we also vigorously be prepared to be critical of those who are not treating their employees well.

There are so many terrific companies out there who are getting this just right and who appreciate that it enhances the work environment and leads to greater productivity. Part of our challenge at the White House is to make sure to showcase and make it easier for companies. We want to spoon feed them. We want to make this as simple as possible.

You're going to try some programs that may not work. We're trying within the federal government. We're doing all kinds of experimenting. Some of it may not work. Some of it will work. But we can't be afraid to try to change this paradigm because the younger generation =- my daughter, who's now 25 -- her generation's actually demanding more, and so the employers who are going to be able to get the best employees, who are going to have choices, are going to have to realize that people are expecting more out of their lives than simply punching the 9 to 5 clock, for example.

It's not just childcare. Elder care is becoming more of an issue. Our studies show that women volunteer at a higher percentage than men. That's a wonderful contribution to society. We should allow some flexibility for that and appreciate the societal good that's being accomplished. I could talk to you for three hours on workplace flexibility -- this is one of my favorite topics, because it is so clearly a win-win. To use a rather over-used phrase, it's good for business, it's good for women, it's good for families, and I think that the United States has an opportunity to be a global leader on this one.

Back to the American Jobs Act, I wanted to know what your top three priorities are.

Everything in there is a priority, and the president and his economic team spent a great deal of time over the course of the summer crafting this package and not at all in a vacuum, but really by figuring out: what are the dials that we need to turn in concert with each other in order to have a deliverable impact? And the impact is simply creating jobs and creating them now.

Every single provision -- from the small business tax credit to a focus on infrastructure where we're going to rebuild our schools ... our children should have not just roofs and mechanical equipment. They should have technology. They should have science labs. They should have all of the elements of the best practice that a school could provide because these are our future and we want them to be able to compete in the global marketplace.

We want to put people back to work. The construction industry was really hard hit by the economic downturn, so roads and bridges and airports and dams and the public infrastructure as well is so important to provide the environment where companies want to invest anywhere else. Making sure that our school teachers and four first responders and our veterans [have jobs.] We have people coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan -- the very least we should be providing is a job when they return ... working very closely with the First Lady's office, this package will make it easier for them to do that.

The tax credit for the small business is the payroll tax credit, but also for employees, we're providing cutting their payroll tax that they pay in half as well and that puts an average of $1500 in the pocket of working people. So if you look at this entire package together, you'll see that it can really provide us the jump that we need, and I think we shouldn't settle for less.

Small businesses and women-owned businesses -- there are so many businesses who do business with the federal government and we want to make sure that we're not just paying people in 30 days, but we're trying in many instances to cut that time in half. People who are on a shoestring budget can't wait to get paid. It can make the difference between hiring another person. It can make the difference between shutting their door.

There isn't an element in this package that hasn't received bipartisan support in the past. A lot of effort went into talking to the marketplace to see whether this would actually turn the dial and create jobs. The president is completely convinced that it will, so he's going to fight very hard for the whole package.

Education funding has been on the chopping block for a while now, yet during that part of the president's speech, Republicans did not clap or respond - they just sat motionless. How is the White House going to respond and fight for teachers?

This bill will provide funding for 280,000 teachers whose jobs are at risk as a result of the cutbacks that state and local government are faced with across the country. And the president's view is that we need to make sure that our teachers are in the classroom where our children need them most. It seems like a pretty simple concept and he's just going to take that directly to the American people.

Same thing with the 35,000 schools that we want to see renovated. Every community in our country has schools that are in need of renovation. The president said this quite eloquently in his speech: we have a choice here in America. We can't afford to do everything. If you have to choose between teachers and first responders and jobs for veterans coming home from wall and continuing tax loopholes for oil companies or hedge funds, where do you come down?

If you think that our roads and bridges and airports shouldn't be rebuilt but that we should be able to have people at an upper income be able to continue to pay at a lower rate than people who work in their offices at a more junior level, that's a choice, and I think what's very clear to us is where the vast majority of American people come down on this issue. And so we're going to cast our lot with them and take this message directly to them. We think that if we do that then Congress will act.

Thank you very much.

You're welcome.

...

After I turned off the audio recorder, Jarrett told me a personal story on the workplace flexibility topic about how when she first began working for Mayor Richard Daley, she caught his eye by glancing at her watch during a major meeting. Defending her action, she explained that she would be late to her daughter's Halloween parade. The mayor told her to go, and that move on his part gained her loyalty. It's the little things that show us the true colors of our leaders.

The White House reached out largely because of the BlogHer community. This became very clear throughout the process of arranging the interview in addition to the conversation itself. They value our insight and our voices. So continue to share your thoughts. Add your comments about your concerns about the economy, jobs and the workplace. While we may not know what's around the corner with the markets or global economic conditions, we do know one thing: When our community talks, the White House listens. And it feels good to be heard.

...

Sarah Granger works on a broad range of policy issues. She was BlogHer's interim political director during the 2010 election and also blogs at SFGates and The Huffington Post.

See also: video of Ms. Jarrett's remarks at the opening of the summit and her blog post on Friday from the summit.

 

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