During a chat with Robin Roberts at the White House Summit on Working Families, First Lady Michelle Obama touched on the issue of women in the workforce and the challenge of balancing their responsibilities in both the boardroom and the home.
Roberts, who pointed out that only 24 women make up all Fortune 500 company CEOs, asked Mrs. Obama what needs to be done to change the environment for women in the workplace.
“More and more people are realizing this is an issue for everybody. We have to use our voices, our power and our leverage to make demands to feel like we can make the request to make the ask to our employers,” the first lady said, before opening up about her own personal struggle with being a working mom.
Obama recalled a time when Barack Obama was working in Washington and she was trying to manage to take care of then much younger daughters Malia and Sasha in Chicago.
“The first thing I tried to do - which was a mistake - was that I tried the part-time thing. What I realized was that I was that I got gypped on that front because what happened was that I got a part-time salary but continued to work full time,” she said. “After that experience I said never again would I shortchange myself because we were still paying for full-time babysitting - because as a professional when there was meeting they expected you to be there. That was a net loss for us.”
The first lady said after losing their babysitter she began to quit the idea of being able to work and have a career at the same time - until she got a call to interview for a vice president position at the University of Chicago Hospital.
“I said ‘you know I don’t even want this job. I’m gonna go to the interview and I’m just gonna be whoever I’m gonna be and they’re gonna have to deal with it. Who I was at the time was a breastfeeding mother of a four-month old and I didn’t have a baby sitter so I promptly took Sasha to the interview with me,” Obama said.
“I thought look this who I am. My husband is who’s away, I got two babies, they are my priority. If you want me to do the job you have to pay me to do the job and you have to give me flexibility…and flexibility means I will work my tail off for you but you better pay me and value my family.”
Thankfully the Harvard Law School educated mother of two got the job.
Mrs. Obama added that its important for employers to begin to care about the needs of their employers and their families, highlighting the fear many workers have of being at risk of losing their jobs if they were to request more flexibility at work.
The first lady also noted that she understands the political fight for working families goes beyond her own personal story.
“This fight isn’t about me or Barack because things are different now,” she said. “We live in the White House, grandma lives upstairs thank God and we have resources we never could have imagined.”
She also recognized her own privilege as a Ivy league educated women turned wife of the nation’s leader.
We know how tough it is. I understood back then when I was a vice president at a hospital, I understood the advantage I had. If I were a teacher, a bus driver or a nurse or a shirt worker - which my father was - there’s no room for that kind of negotiation,” she said.
“If you’re an hourly worker the need is even greater because the balance is even more delicate for many working families. Childcare is beyond expensive. We had the luxury of looking at nannies and we couldn’t even afford the one we had. That emotional tug on its own is powerful and it is not lost on me or Barack how tough it is, which is why we all have to be in this fight. This is something we’re doing for each other.”
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