What Was Achieved at the White House Summit on Working Families?

The White House convened a summit this week, co-sponsored by the White House Council on Women and Girls, the Department of Labor and the Center for American Progress, to address the concerns of working families in the United States. Besides casting a national spotlight on families in the workforce, the immediate result of the summit included a presidential memorandum on workplace flexibility.

Signed by President Obama on June 23, the presidential memorandum establishes employees’ right to request scheduling flexibility without fear of retaliation. Such requests can include part-time employment, personal sick leave and leave for family care. Many of the provisions in the memorandum are tailored specifically  to working women, mandating break times and privates spaces for nursing, sick leave in cases of domestic violence or sexual assault and on-site childcare or childcare subsidies.

What the president’s’ memorandum does not address, however, is paid sick leave, a hot topic leading up to the summit. Currently, the U.S. is the only developed country that does not require paid time off for illness, which means that about 40 million private-sector workers can’t get paid for even a single day of recovery from sickness. More than two-thirds of low-paid food-service and childcare workers have no paid sick leave, and those jobs are dominated by women.

Obama roundly denounced this state of affairs; the White House currently provides six weeks of paid sick leave a year to its staffers. Without the support of Congress, however, Obama cannot extend the same benefits to federal employees. He did, however, announce the creation of a fund for five states to research the implementation of paid sick leave. “While we wait for Congress, I’m going to do what I can to act on my own,” Obama said.

Women speakers at the event included BET chair and CEO Debra Lee, House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, CEO of Girl Scouts Anne Marie Chavez and first lady Michelle Obama. Chavez sat on a panel discussing young women leaders, while Lee and Pelosi participated in a lively discussion on career ladders and leadership. In her closing remarks, Obama drew on her personal experiences to spotlight the lack of women in the sciences:

You know, I didn’t go to medical school because I thought I wasn’t good at sciences. …We’ve got to get girls when they’re young, before they, you know, move away or sort of buy into the mythology that women can’t do these things.

Photo of President Obama courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Emily Shugerman is a politics major at Occidental College and editor in chief of The Occidental Weekly. Follow her on Twitter.