Obama: U.S. Workplace Policies 'Straight Out of "Mad Men"'

At the United State of Women Summit, the president called on employers to better support women

By Dana Wilkie Jun 15, 2016
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President Barack Obama on Tuesday delivered a scathing review of U.S. workplace policies—depicting them as insulting and discriminatory toward women and in need of a major overhaul. 

“Our workplace policies still look like they’re straight out of ‘Mad Men,’ ” Obama said, referring to the TV series that depicted many women in the workplace as mere sex objects. 

Obama’s remarks came during the White House’s first United State of Women Summit in Washington, D.C., during which government and business leaders discussed gender inequality in education, health care and economic opportunities. At the summit, attended by an estimated 5,000 people, participating companies announced some $50 million in backing toward gender equality initiatives. 

“If we really want workplace policies that work for everybody, it would help if we had more women in Congress,” Obama said. “If we had more women in the corner suite. We’re still boxed in by stereotypes about how men and women should behave. We need to keep changing the attitude that keeps raising our daughters to be demure … that punishes women for their sexuality, but gives men a pat on the back for theirs … the attitude that congratulates men for changing a diaper, stigmatizes full-time dads, penalizes working moms ...that prioritizes being competent, competitive and ambitious in the workplace—unless you’re a woman.” 

The summit assembled experts, advocates, and grassroots and business leaders who work in domestic and international arenas to highlight economic, health, educational and safety issues affecting women and girls. 

Among the speakers were First Lady Michelle Obama; Vice President Joe Biden and his wife, Jill; Oprah Winfrey; Warren Buffett; House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi; and numerous actors and actresses, including Amy Poehler, Patricia Arquette, Matt McGorry and Mariska Hargitay. 

Pelosi recalled what her male House colleagues said when she decided to run for—and eventually won—the House speakership. 

“When they saw the support I had among my women colleagues, they told us, ‘Oh, well, why don’t you make a list of the things you want done and we’ll do it for you,’ ” she said. “Really? 

Referring to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton, Pelosi noted that “now we’re on the verge of … the possibility of a woman holding the highest office in the land. The most powerful office in the world. It will resound in the dreams of every young girl in every corner of America.” 

To coincide with the summit, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) released the following resource documents that address the equal employment opportunity rights of women in the workplace:

And the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) announced a final rule that sets forth the gender equality requirements that covered contractors must meet under the provisions of Executive Order 11246, which. [http://www.dol.gov/ofccp/sexdiscrimination.html] prohibits federal contractors and subcontractors from discriminating on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin. 

The OFCCP final rule addresses a variety of gender-based barriers to equal employment and fair pay, including compensation discrimination, sexual harassment, hostile work environments, a lack of workplace accommodations for pregnant workers, and gender identity and family caregiving discrimination. The rule’s effective date is Aug. 15, 2016.

Fighting Sexual Assault

Frequently during the summit, speakers referred to the case of Brock Allen Turner, a 20-year-old former Stanford University swimmer convicted of sexually assaulting an unconscious woman. Turner was sentenced on June 2 to six months in county jail and probation. The sentence ignited outrage among many women’s rights groups that said the punishment was too light, and has intensified scrutiny of criminal prosecutions of campus rape cases; such prosecutions are rare. In recent years, there have also been growing concerns about whether universities protect athletes accused of sexual assault. 

A recent White House survey found that 10 percent of female college students experience some form of sexual assault while at school, and that only 12.5 percent of rapes are reported.

“Domestic violence and sexual assault have long been devalued as women’s issues,” said Hargitay. “These issues are misunderstood, underfunded, underresearched, and have existed on the margins of public priorities and concerns. Society continues to misplace blame and shame on survivors.”

Also speaking was Jessica Davidson, vice president of the student body at the University of Denver. She said she was raped during her junior year and grew frustrated by the barriers she encountered when trying to seek help and justice. 

“Sexual assault makes us feel so powerless that we feel we can do nothing at all,” Davidson said. “This isn’t just scary; it’s wrong and I wanted to change that narrative.” 

This year, she said, she helped pass policies to inspire cultural changes on campus—which included challenging students to reject the “code of silence” that she said some college men embrace after witnessing a sexual assault. She also wrote a piece for The Huffington Post titled “My Rapist Might Not Know He’s a Rapist.”

“My college leadership professor told me that … we can change the world by getting mad,” she said. “Sexual assault makes me mad. It has been indescribably empowering to work with my peers to transform that anger and disappointment into action. The most important thing that we can do is to make sure that all survivors know: We believe you. We support you. You are not alone.” 

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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