Michelle Obama Calls for Work Environment that Values Women, Families

By Stephenie Overman Jun 2, 2017

First Lady Michelle Obama hugs a student during a tour of the WISE Summit Learning Labs during the 2015 World Innovation Summit for Education at the Qatar National Convention Centre in Doha, Qatar, Nov. 4, 2015. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon).

PHOENIX—Former First Lady Michelle Obama called on women to love themselves and lift each other up, to "demand to be valued." "We have to demand that the workplace support us," she told the WorkHuman 2017 conference on June 1. 

"There's lots of cultural and internal work that we have to do. We have to prioritize ourselves," Obama said in an onstage chat with Steve Pemberton, global chief diversity officer at Walgreens Boots Alliance. She was the closing speaker of the three-day conference sponsored by employee-recognition software company Globoforce. 

Women have been too willing to put up with too much, she said. "We do that to ourselves. What we're told is that you're only valuable if you're beautiful. We play that game ourselves. Get out of that game. We should stop measuring ourselves against false standards." 

She said that when she launched Let Girls Learn, a program focused on helping adolescent girls around the world go to school, she found the toughest barriers were not so much financial as cultural because "fathers, mothers believe their daughters are not as deserving of an education" as their sons. 

She urged men to "really put yourself in the shoes of the women in the workplace. You have to ask more questions. You can't just assume.

"If you're a man at the seat of power, ask: 'What's our family leave policy? What about women who are having babies? What about breastfeeding? How are people handling child care?' This is important for the whole family. This benefits men as well." 

Creating an environment that builds healthy families benefits businesses too, Obama continued. "You'll have better retention. If a person finds a place to work that really values family … they will be loyal. Be leaders on this. Don't wait until somebody makes you do it, until the government passes laws." 

During her talk, Obama touched on some of the themes of the WorkHuman conference: enlightenment, authenticity, inclusion and happiness. 

Politics should be guided by what's best for children, she said, but "we're not doing that right now. There's gun violence in communities. Children don't have access to healthy food, access to a college education. Sexual violence against young girls is real. We're playing politics with so much stuff." 

While there may be much work to do to improve society, she said, she does not see the task as overwhelming. "I think there are lots of people out there who have passion. I urge the people in this room to think about how we can do better for all of our kids. If we're all working on that then we'll be good," she said. 

Obama also urged people to "give one another the benefit of the doubt. Treat each other with a little more empathy and compassion." Start by doing that in the workplace, she said, "because you're forced to be with each other in the workplace. Have an argument about politics and get over it. Get back together.

"People think inclusion has to be a big, bold initiative. I think that stops people from doing anything," she said. "But inclusivity starts in your own home, your church, your neighborhood. It doesn't have to be big, if we each do our part. Have I reached out today to somebody who isn't like me?" 

People so often look to the president to be the leader who brings about changes such as making society more inclusive, but the president's powers are limited by the Constitution, the former First Lady noted. "The power is in us. Think small but consistent." 

Authenticity means being proud of your own story, no matter what it is, Obama told the audience. "So many people think there is one way to look, one way to get an education … there are perfect jobs to have. We hide our stories from ourselves and others. There is no right way to be human. Our stories are rich and unique. That's what makes our world go 'round. When you don't feel your story is of value, it's hard to be authentic."

Stephenie Overman is a freelance writer based in the Washington, D.C., area. 

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