White House: Dialogue Needed on Women at Work

By Bill Leonard Apr 12, 2011
White House officials hope that a report on the status of women in the United States will grab the attention of employers in the private and public sector and spark discussions about how to improve workplace flexibility for female employees.

The 97-page report, titled Women in America: Indicators of Social and Economic Well-Being, was released by the White House Council on Women and Girls in March 2011. According to officials, the report is the first comprehensive examination of the economic and social condition of women in the United States since 1963.

“The idea of this report is to start a public- and private-sector dialogue on these important issues,” said Preeta Bansal, general counsel and senior policy advisor for the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), during an online question-and-answer session held by the White House to publicize the findings.

The OMB and the U.S. Commerce Department’s Economics and Statistics Administration conducted the study, finding that in 2009 women accounted for 47 percent of U.S. workers and 51 percent of professional and managerial employees.

Yet female workers in the U.S. still earn 75 percent of their male counterparts.

According to Valerie Jarrett, chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls and senior advisor to the president, many factors have created the male/female wage disparity.

“While women are well represented in professional and managerial-level jobs, they tend to work in industries and careers that typically aren’t the most profitable or have the highest-level wages,” Jarrett said during the White House web chat.

Educational attainment and choice of college majors are two of the primary reasons many women don’t hold higher-level jobs and don’t tend to work in industries that pay well. While women have strong representation at the professional level, they are not represented as well in career paths that require advanced degrees in science, engineering and mathematics.

“The president and I recently had the chance to visit a middle-school science fair, so I made sure that I went up to girls participating in the fair to congratulate them and to encourage them to keep up the good work,” Jarrett said.

Additionally, the report found that men tend to work longer hours than women and that more women than men work part time.

Work/Life Pressures

The study found that two-thirds of U.S. children are being raised by single parents or by two working parents, and the number of elderly in the U.S. continues to increase. The study concluded that women face more work/life pressures than their male counterparts because of their role as primary caregivers for children and elderly parents.

“The report shows that there is a real need for employers to offer workplace flexibility and that demand for flexible work options will only continue to grow,” Jarrett said. She urged employers to explore ways to help all workers balance their work and home responsibilities.

Private sector and government-sponsored research has shown that flex time and flexible work options such as telecommuting and compressed workweeks have positive bottom-line results for businesses by increasing worker retention and productivity. “More employers have come to realize that retaining women is about competitiveness and cutting costs by reducing turnover and raising productivity,” Jarrett said.

Measuring the productivity of workers is one of the keys to understanding the benefits of flexible work options, Jarrett emphasized during the web chat. “Measure productivity of workers rather than the hours worked, and you will get more with less,” she said.

Flexible work options should be available to men and women because, as Jarrett and some of the study results noted, a growing number of men have begun to take on caregiver roles traditionally held by women.

“Men also expect flexibility, so this is an issue that affects all workers,” Jarrett said.

However, men typically receive more favorable workplace treatment from employers, such as better compensation packages and more opportunities for career advancement.

“All we are really asking is that employers join us in a dialogue and look for ways to create a level playing field for working women,” Jarrett said. “We believe this report is a good starting point, and now our goal is to engage all employers in this important discussion.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.​

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