Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at a Corporate Voices for Working Families Event

May 07, 2009

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thank you, Donna, and thanks to all of you who are part of the Corporate Voices for Working Families. I'm happy to join you today as you begin this annual meeting. This is a very good thing, and I am so glad I could be here.

Many of the issues that you'll be discussing are issues that, as you know, are near and dear to my heart. I personally, as Donna described, know the challenges of leading a busy life at work and at home, trying to do a good job at both -- and always feeling like you're not quite living up to either -- and trying not to pit one against the other, really trying to balance it so that -- if people here are like me -- I call myself a 120-percenter. If I'm not doing any job at 120 percent, I think I'm failing. So if you're trying to do that at home and at work, you find it very difficult and stressful and frustrating.

And even though my current life, trust me, is very different than it was and for most people -- and I do know that; I know that right now I am living, as challenging as it may seem, in a very blessed situation, because I have what most families don't have, is tons of support all around, not just my mother but staff and administration. I have a Chief of Staff and a personal assistant, and everyone needs that; that's what we need. (Laughter.) Everyone should have a Chief of Staff and a set of personal assistants. (Applause.)

But one thing I know from meeting women and men across the country is that the work-life challenges that I've faced aren't different from the challenges facing other families and undoubtedly many of you.

Things are very different for working families than when many of us were growing up. I talked about this a lot on the campaign trail. When I look back on my childhood and the life that my parents provided, working-class folks with not a lot of money, my father was a blue-collar city worker who worked a shift job. But because he earned enough as a shift worker without a college degree, he could still support a family of four on that salary. And because he could, with that salary, support us -- we rented a home, we didn't live lavishly -- my mother was able to stay at home. She could afford to make the choice not to go to work while we were growing up. That was how families balanced back then.

But things are very different today. One income really doesn't always cut it anymore. And that's in my lifetime. In most families, both parents have to work, and even if people want to make the choice to stay home. And again, there is no subjective analysis or -- of what is better. But people can't make the choice. It's even harder for single parents, and there are millions of them all across this country who are trying to build a life for themselves and their children, and they find in an economy that's tough that they're not just holding down one but they need a couple of jobs just to make ends meet.

Twenty-two million working women don't have a single paid sick day. That means they lose money any time they have to stay home to take care of their kids. You know, imagine making that choice. And we do it all the time. And even when I had sick leave, I found myself, you know, hoping that the kids would stay well, just I couldn't afford to take the day off because there was a meeting, or something was going on. So your whole life is just contingent upon everything working perfectly. So imagine families who don't have any sick time. So if somebody gets sick, they have to take time off, and they lose the money that they can't afford.

So there are a lot of people counting on us to figure this out. And one of the reasons I was interested in joining you today is because the research that you do provides a solid foundation for the conversations that we need to have on these issues.

Through your work, the private sector, government and other key stakeholders can have a real dialogue based on facts, find common ground and then develop innovative policies that can help employees manage their work and family obligations, without going crazy.

In promoting best practices –- some of which I believe we'll hear about today, and I'm really looking forward to hearing about how some companies are making it work, because that's how we're going to figure this out, looking at the best practices and figuring out how we can replicate that -- employers here learn how to implement programs that are beneficial to the bottom line.

That's something that I learned as a manager, is that when you provide programs that enable employees to remain productive in their work, which everybody wants to do -- I know few people who don't want to do their very best at their job -- but in order for them to do this, they have to feel like their home life is stable and manageable.

So I found that as I've managed staff, the more flexibility and opportunities that I gave them to be good parents, the more commitment that they made to working with me, the less likely they were to leave because they wouldn't find the same sort of situation somewhere else.

So this isn't just about family balance. This is about making work places stronger and more effective, and keeping and attracting the most qualified people. This research is critical to empowering employers and is politically -- particularly important during our current economic climate.

We need to discuss flexible work hours that give employees greater ability to attend to important family responsibilities like child pick-up, something as simple as that; doctors appointments for those not just with kids, but for people with elderly parents. We're finding more and more that families are in that crunch, as well.

We need to discuss paid leave for birth or adoption of a child and when there's a serious illness that arises.

We need to discuss quality on-site child care, something that keeps many of us up at night as families; you're just wondering where are we going to put our children where we feel like that they're being safe -- that they're safe and being loved. That will relieve many of the stresses that parents feel on the job throughout the day.

These types of policies can be the key to whether a family remains economically viable or slips into financial uncertainty.

I expect this day to be the first of what will be for me many conversations that I'll get a chance to participate in. We need to find ways to encourage other employers to follow your lead and adopt work-life policies that afford employees flexibility and much-needed support. We want to work together to make clear that, again, investing in these types of policies pays off for employers as well as the employees.

So I am honored to be here. I am looking forward to learning more about what works, what doesn't work, what's economically feasible, what I can do to be of help in furthering some of these agendas.

So with that, I will stop and do what I love to do best, which is listen and learn. So thank you for having me. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at a Corporate Voices for Working Families Event Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320242

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