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  • Writer's pictureScott Behson

My 5 Favorite Parts of the White House Summit on Working Families

On June 23rd, the White House held the main event of its Summit on Working Families (see here and here on my reports from two other Summit events I participated in). I was honored to be in attendance at this event in which the President, First Lady, VP, several CEOs (including Johnson & Johnson, Goldman Sachs, EY, Deloitte, and PwC), entrepreneurs, researchers, advocates and celebrities all joined their voices in support of working families.

Here's my report on the White House Summit on Working Families

Here’s my report on the White House Summit on Working Families

Despite some frustration that the event did not move things forward enough for my tastes, the Summit gave me A LOT to be encouraged about. Here are five highlights:

The Highlights! (part 1)

1. Biden and Obama Speak From the Heart as Involved Working Dads

President Obama began by saying what binds all of us together is that “work is an important part of our life’s purpose and that family is the bedrock of our lives.” He also noted that the US is the only developed economy without any paid parental leave- “most women can’t even get a paid day off to give birth. that’s a pretty low bar. We should be able to do that.” he also noted that, “if France can figure this out, of course WE can figure it out.” When some in the audience booed when he noted our lack of policy, he replied, “Don’t boo, vote!”

But Obama was most compelling when he talked about his experience as a father, taking the “night shift” feeding, changing and soothing the girls so Michelle could sleep. He said this experience was “so important for getting to know them and for them to know me, and I see the results of that time every day.” He said he was lucky to have that time and wants all dads to have the same opportunity.

He closed by stating he supports working mothers and working families “as a grandson who saw his grandmother passed over because of gender discrimination, the son of a mother who needed temporary public assistance, the husband of a brilliant attorney, and the father of two girls whom he wants to be able to pursue their dreams without unfair obstacles.”

Vice President Biden was also great in his very emotional speech. The crux of his message is how lucky and privileged he and most of the attendees were- we generally have the resources, connections, information and types of employment that help us succeed in family and work. He reminded us to work for those who do not have these advantages.

Biden also shared his experience as a single father. Just before he entered the Senate, his wife and daughter were killed in a car crash, leaving him as a single dad to his two young sons. His extended family, especially his sister, stepped in to help, but he soon found he needed to work outside the normal Senate work pattern to be there for his boys. That’s when he began his now famous daily Amtrak commute from DC to Delaware, and skipped out on almost all procedural and many non-contentions Senate votes in order to be there for them.

In fact, when his opponents attacked him for his spotty voting record (a Senate-low 87%), Biden actually aired an ad saying if he were re-elected, he’d continue to skip out on those votes to be a present father. He was obviously re-elected many times over, and has tried to extend that same flexibility to his staff throughout his career.

He ended with advice for employers, stating that, “you don’t always need a rigid policy, but an awful lot of this just needs a subtle and significant understanding of what working parents have to deal with and letting people know that, as long as they perform, their subtle choices won’t negatively affect their careers.”

Actress Christina Hendricks speaks out against "Mad Men" workplace policies

Actress Christina Hendricks speaks out against “Mad Men” workplace policies

2. No More “Mad Men” Workplaces

Mad Men actress Christina Hendricks (who portrays Joan Holloway, the long-suffering single mom who outperforms her male coworkers but is continually overlooked and marginalized), noted that when President Obama talks about backwards policies like unequal pay, he often refers to these as “out-of-date Mad Men policies.” Hendricks added that workplace policies that marginalize women and those with family responsibilities are as obsolete as the rotary phones they use on set and that “the only place for Joan’s story should be on TV.”

3. Big Business Sending a Big Signal

CEOs of three of the Big 4 Accounting firms (PwC, EY and Deloitte) spoke at the event (the CEOs of Johnson & Johnson, Goldman Sachs and Shake Shack, New Belgium Brewery and others also spoke). They all championed greater work flexibility, more generous leave policies, changes to how employees are evaluated (performance as opposed to where/when/always-on), supervisory training, the need for more supportive cultures, and the enormous financial benefits they reap from employee retention and engagement through these efforts. They kept saying that the business case for family supportiveness was clear through both research and their experiences. When asked why other firms do not follow suit, they simply remarked that fear of change was the major obstacle, and encouraged business leaders to start small.

When ultra-successful firms in ultra-competitive markets demonstrate their commitment to family supports and extol their financial returns for doing so, it should send the very clear signal to other employers- You can do this too!

4. Real Working Moms

During the event, several non-famous “real world” working moms gave short addresses and introduced the headliners. They were uniformly compelling, but working mom/Macy’s employee Kay Thompson stood out to me.

Thompson is the mother of 4, and makes $15/hour at Macy’s Herald Square in NYC. Macy’s and her union negotiated arrangements in which all hourly employees get three week’s notice of their schedule and in which employees can block out days they need off up to three months in advance. This control over work scheduling is a key for work-family balance among hourly employees.

Valerie Jarrett and Thomas Perez opened the event with inspiring remarks

Valerie Jarrett and Thomas Perez opened the event with inspiring remarks

5. Fantastic Quotes, Like…

If you are a mom who had to send your kid to school with a low fever because you couldn’t miss work, or if you are a dad who would wanted to be home to care and bond with your new baby and your employer had a policy on the books BUT the culture wouldn’t accept it if you took time, or if you are a company that wants to do the right thing but doesn’t know how to get started… You are not alone, and this day is for you.- Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor to the President

Next week, I’ll write more about this event, including the few things I did not like (hint: Morning Joe’s insipid Mika Brzezinski). But for now, any comments/perspectives to share? Let’s discuss in the comments section.

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