Michelle Obama photo

Remarks by the First Lady at the National Science Foundation Family-Friendly Policy Rollout

September 26, 2011

MRS. OBAMA: Thank you so much. (Applause.) Everyone, please be seated. Let me welcome you all to the White House. And again, thank you, Michelle, for that very kind and inspirational story and introduction. We are all so proud of you. Let's give Michelle -- (applause.) And I know your family is watching, so congratulations.

I also want to thank Acting Secretary of Commerce Becky Blank, who I know had to leave, but we want to thank her. And we have Congressman Chaka Fattah, who is joining us today. Congressman, it's good to have you.

Now, it is Michelle -- and students like her -- they are the reason why we're here today. Now, more than ever, we can't afford to throw barriers in front of someone who had the hunger to be the first in her family to go to college; someone who worked full-time to put herself through school while keeping up with her younger brothers and sisters; someone who is proving the doubters wrong every single day. This country simply can't afford to miss out on someone like that. And fortunately, in Michelle's case, we didn't.

So today is also about helping every little girl in this country believe that she can be the next Michelle Del Rio. Right? (Laughter.) It's about showing every child that a scientist isn't just something you hear about in biology class, that a doctor isn't someone you visit when you're sick. Instead, young people -- particularly our girls -- need to understand that doctors and scientists are something that anyone can become, no matter how much money your family has, no matter where you come from or whether you're a man or a woman. And that message is more important than ever in today's world.

As my husband has said again and again, in order to meet the challenges of the next century, we have got to strengthen our role as the world's engine of scientific discovery and technological advancement. We need to educate the scientists who will make the next big discoveries that will fuel our economy. We need the highly skilled leaders who can teach in our classrooms, run our laboratories, and power our industries for decades to come.

And if we're going to out-innovate and out-educate the rest of the world, then we have to open doors to everyone. We can't afford to leave anyone out. We need all hands on deck. And that means clearing hurdles for women and girls as they navigate careers in science, technology, engineering and math.

And it starts with lighting the spark for science and math in elementary school and grade school. We talk about this all the time. I know for me, I'm a lawyer because I was bad at these subjects. (Laughter.) All lawyers in the room, you know it's true. We can't add and subtract, so we argue. (Laughter.)

And so encouraging girls early not to lose heart in those fields, and encouraging them through high school is important. But it also means making sure that these young women can keep pursuing their dreams in college and beyond.

And we know that as people are building a career -- as Michelle is -- they're also working on building their families. And so, often, it's working women who struggle to juggle their careers while caring for young children or an aging parent. That means it's tougher for them to rise to positions of leadership. It means that the highest rungs of the career ladder are sometimes out of reach.

And too often in STEM fields, it means giving up on those careers entirely. But if we take some practical, common-sense steps, we can keep these women in the STEM pipeline where we so desperately need them.

And that is why I am so excited about this effort from the National Science Foundation. The folks at the NSF understand that you shouldn't be penalized or lose a chance to advance in your career because you are taking care of a new child or a mom or dad who's gotten sick.

This is another way that my husband's administration is leading by example on issues like these. We all know that when you take steps to make life easier for working parents, it's a win for everyone. Workplace flexibility policies can increase worker productivity. It can decrease turnover rates. It can reduce absenteeism. It can attract the best workers, and it can help those workers keep their jobs.

And that's why we've been working so hard to promote things like teleworking in the government, to support things like family and medical leave at the state level, and to launch a pilot program that evaluates workers on the quality of the work that they produce, not when or where they produce it.

And it's why we've been out there working with businesses all around the country, encouraging them to share best practices around workplace flexibility and promoting the efforts of companies that are taking this issue on.

And we're finding that more and more businesses are realizing that this is not only helpful to their workers but it also helps their bottom line.

And that's really the final point I will make here this afternoon. Some may think that during difficult economic times, flexible policies like these are the last thing that we should be thinking about. But the fact is, is that in this environment, flexible policies become more important for both workers and employers. When folks are struggling to make ends meet, when they are taking on extra jobs or they're working longer hours, when every day is a high-wire act and the checkbook is balanced on the thinnest edge, no one should be forced to choose between caring for their family and losing their job. No employer should lose a quality employee just because life happens. And life is happening to so many people throughout this country these days.

And our country shouldn't lose out on its most promising talent because the career path is untenable. So we have got to do everything we can to keep fueling this country's engine of innovation and discovery. We've got to do everything we can to keep the doors open for women like Michelle and girls all across our country who want to be standing right in her shoes and will do whatever it takes to get there, if only we lend a hand.

So I want to say thank you all for being here. I want to thank the NSF for stepping up and leading the way. This is a tremendous statement and our hope is that other companies who are watching this will see this as another reason to follow suit.

So with that, I want to turn it back over to Dr. Suresh, who's going to get the panel started in just a moment. And before I leave I'll just come down and shake a few hands.

So, you all, thank you so much. (Applause.)

Michelle Obama, Remarks by the First Lady at the National Science Foundation Family-Friendly Policy Rollout Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/320553

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