White House Council on Women and Girls

On March 11, 2009, President Obama signed an Executive Order creating the White House Council on Women and Girls to keep an eye on how every government agency is addressing the challenges confronted by women of all ages. Before signing, he spoke about the women in his life:

“I sign this order not just as a President, but as a son, a grandson, a husband, and a father, because growing up, I saw my mother put herself through school and follow her passion for helping others. But I also saw how she struggled to raise me and my sister on her own, worrying about how she’d pay the bills and educate herself and provide for us. I saw my grandmother work her way up to become one of the first women bank vice presidents in the state of Hawaii, but I also saw how she hit a glass ceiling – how men no more qualified than she was kept moving up the corporate ladder ahead of her. I’ve seen Michelle, the rock of the Obama family – (laughter) – juggling work and parenting with more skill and grace than anybody that I know. But I also saw how it tore at her at times, how sometimes when she was with the girls she was worrying about work, and when she was at work she was worrying about the girls. It’s a feeling that I share every day.”

Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act

The first piece of legislation which President Obama signed, only 10 days after taking office, was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009, to make it easier for people to get the pay they deserve – regardless of their gender, race, or age. The President described Lilly Ledbetter, after whom the act is named, as “just a good hard worker who did her job – and she did it well – for nearly two decades before discovering that for years, she was paid less than her male colleagues for doing the very same work.”

White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility

First Lady Michelle Obama spoke at the White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility, hosted by the President, First Lady, and the White House Council on Women and Girls on March 31, 2010, to discuss the importance of creating workplace practices that allow America’s working men and women to meet the demands of their jobs without sacrificing the needs of their families. “Flexible policies actually make employees more – not less – productive,” said Mrs. Obama. “Instead of spending time worrying about what’s happening at home, employees have the support and the peace of mind they need to concentrate at work which is good for their families – and the bottom line.”

President Obama emphasized, “Workplace flexibility isn’t just a women’s issue. It’s an issue that affects the well-being of our families and the success of our businesses.” He added, “It affects the strength of our economy – whether we’ll create the workplaces and jobs of the future that we need to compete in today’s global economy.”

In conjunction with the forum, the President’s Council of Economic Advisers released a report discussing the economic benefits of workplace flexibility: reduced absenteeism, lower turnover, improved health of workers, and increased productivity. The analysis is available online here.

Women of Courage Awards

First lady Michelle Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton honored women human rights activists from around the world with this year’s Women of Courage awards at a special ceremony March 10, 2010 at the State Department. “These 10 women have overcome personal adversity, threats, arrest, and assault to dedicate themselves to activism for human rights,” said Melanne Verveer, the State Department’s first-ever ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues. “From striving to give more voice to politically underrepresented women in Afghanistan to documenting human rights abuses in Zimbabwe, these heroic individuals have made it their life’s work to increase freedom and equality in the world.”

Michelle Obama lauded the awardees for taking risks and facing hardships few people are willing to endure. She noted that among the invited guests in the room were young women from a local school and from the White House mentoring program, which pairs young people from area high schools with White House staff mentors for a year.

“Listen closely,” Obama told the young women, “because if these women can endure relentless threats, then surely you can all keep going … None of you are too young to start making a difference.” She urged the young American women to take inspiration from the Women of Courage awardees.