The White House Is Bringing Amazing Women Together For An Important Reason

You don't have to look far to find examples of women shattering glass ceilings.

But the fight for gender equality in the United States and beyond is far from over. On too many topics — equal pay, access to health care, protection against sexual assault — we're falling short.

The White House is putting the spotlight on both the progress we've made and the work that still needs to be done next week with its first ever United State of Women Summit.

The summit will focus on a number of key areas including "gender equality issues, economic empowerment, health and wellness, education, violence, entrepreneurship and innovation, leadership, and civic participation."

To tackle these big issues, the White House has enlisted support from a who's who of powerful women in business, Hollywood, politics, and more. A video launched this week to promote the summit features household names like Tina Fey, Shonda Rhimes, Tory Burch, Meryl Streep and Cecile Richards of Planned Parenthood. As part of the program, first lady Michelle Obama will interview Oprah Winfrey about how to inspire the next generation of trailblazers.

Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to the president and chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, said the summit's work extends far beyond one day in D.C. It will be streamed online so that women across the country can be inspired to get involved, as well.

"We believe the summit is going to be a seminal moment to mark the significant progress we’ve achieved over the last seven and a half years on behalf of women and girls domestically and internationally," Jarrett told Refinery29.

Ahead, Jarrett talks with Refinery29 about the progress made so far and her own pledge for the future of gender parity.
Photo: Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg/Getty Images .
Valerie Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Obama.

There’s a part in the video where women are talking about how it’s their choice when to say yes and when to say no. The Daily Show's Jessica Williams pops in and says, "Because duh. Literally duh." I think a lot of our readers will really identify with that sentiment — some of these concepts feel so basic to young women growing up today. How does it make you feel to know that, in 2016, we’re still having to discuss and fight for rights and equal treatment that seems so basic?
"It should be a duh, but unfortunately it isn’t yet a duh. I’m delighted to see young women view it so obviously and also, I hasten to say, young men, as well. I’m hopeful about this next generation, that it will be more of a duh for them than it was for me. And more of a duh for me than it was for my mom. It’s been [over] 50 years since President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, yet there is still a pay discrepancy. So, there is still a lot of hard work left to do.

"What I’m encouraged by is that women are increasingly feeling the agency to effect change. They feel empowered to effect change and that is, I believe, from the president of the United States on down. There is a recognition in the Obama administration that everybody should get that fair shot and that we should all compete on an equal playing field. And that it takes the effort of all of us to come together — state, local, and federal government, the private sector, the philanthropic community, the not-for-profit community — all working together to ensure that women and girls get that fair shot. It’s really encouraging to hear young women find their voice and be able to advocate for themselves knowing that they’re not alone."

It’s been [over] 50 years since President Kennedy signed the Equal Pay Act, yet there is still a pay discrepancy. So, there is still a lot of hard work left to do.

Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Obama
When you look back at those last seven-plus years of the administration, what are some of the achievements that you’re most proud of in leveling the playing field for women and girls?
"The president has put the spotlight on the working families agenda…We have built momentum to help employers recognize that if they invest in their workers and support practices that enable working families to thrive, that the employers will have more productive, more efficient workers who are more loyal and you’ll have less turnover in the workplace. So, ultimately these practices are not just good for women, but they’re good for families, they’re good for employers, and they’re good for the economy.

"Over the last seven and a half years, we have seen [mounting] evidence that demonstrates that these practices work, as well as countless examples around the country at the state and local level, as well as in the private sector, that there’s a recognition about the importance of these practices — everything from raising the minimum wage, to paid sick leave, paid sick days, workplace flexibility, equal pay for equal work, and affordable child care. We’re seeing a lot of momentum across the country. That’s one big area where I think we’ve changed the paradigm in the last seven and a half years.
Photo: Wong Maye-E/AP Photo.
First lady Michelle Obama listens to schoolgirls during a trip abroad. More than 60 million girls worldwide still lack access to education.
"The Violence Against Women Act was reauthorized and strengthened during the president’s term in office and we have really drilled down specifically in strategies to end assault on college campuses. Right now, 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted while in college. That’s an epidemic. And a couple years ago we launched a campaign called It’s On Us that engages everyone in the culture change necessary to end sexual assault.

"[The administration recognizes] that legislation is important, but it’s not the only way we improve lives of women and girls. We really need a recognition about how important it is to give women and girls an equal opportunity to compete on a level playing field in order to be a healthy society. And that countries where women and girls thrive are the countries that have the healthiest economies, are the most competitive, and have the best quality of life.

"One other example on the international stage, [is] a program the president and first lady announced last year, Let Girls Learn. Its goal is to ensure that the 62 million girls around the world, half of whom are adolescents, receive an education."

Right now, 1 in 5 women are sexually assaulted while in college. That’s an epidemic.

Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Obama
Sexual assault on college campuses is in the news this week with the case of the former Stanford swimmer who was sentenced to six months for a conviction on sexual assault. There’s a lot of outrage, a feeling that there’s this fundamental unfairness and lack of justice in how we treat these cases. What message do you have for people who are frustrated and disappointed with how the system is handling these cases, and what do you think can be done to further improve it?
"Without commenting on a particular case, I would say that what is really important is that we hold up best practices for what we know works. And the Department of Education has a civil rights division whose purpose is to ensure that our young people are able to learn free from assault of any kind [under Title IX].

"Our educational institutions have a [legal] responsibility if they receive federal funding to ensure that their students are safe. What we have found is that it isn’t enough just to have the right laws on the books. We have to change the culture. There are lots of contributing factors to sexual assault, and we have to recognize that laws alone are not going to keep young people from being assaulted.

"What’s been successful about [the] It’s On Us campaign is when the community on campus comes together and says, 'We’re not going to tolerate that behavior on this campus' — that’s where you see real change happen. It is important to us to stop sexual assault before it occurs so we don’t have to face the difficult task of [delivering results] after the fact. Because even if you have justice, you still have a young person who’s traumatized for life as a result of the assault. So let’s keep it from happening in the first place.

"That requires a change in culture. It requires students looking out for one another. Bystander intervention is a major contributor to stopping sexual assault…This is not something we should ever brush under the rug."
Equal pay is another issue that really impacts a lot of our readers personally. As you mentioned, the pay gap is still there. Why is it so hard to achieve parity in pay?
"There are a lot of different factors that contribute to it. One of them is just transparency. Oftentimes employers aren’t even aware that there’s a pay gap. One of the steps the president has taken is to ensure that companies capture data about pay and submit it to the Department of Labor so that we have the data to analyze the pay gap.

"One example is [this] company called Salesforce, where the CEO, Marc Benioff, prides himself on having a company that [values] equality. He wasn’t aware that his company had a pay gap. But because he creates a kind of culture where his [female] workers feel comfortable coming to him and saying, 'We think we’re not getting same pay as [male] counterparts,' Marc looked at it and saw there was a $3 million pay gap. And he closed it.

"Part of the solution is transparency. And the president is supporting legislation on [Capitol Hill] called 'Paycheck Fairness' that would, among other things, prohibit retaliation against employees who share [their salaries]. How do you know there’s a pay gap if you don’t even know what your colleagues are earning?

I think that when government reflects the composition of its citizens, it does a better job. Period.

Valerie Jarrett
"We also know that we have to encourage, beginning at an early age, girls to develop an interest in science and technology and engineering and math — and keep them in those fields. The average amount of time that women stay in computer science is only three years. The number one reason [for leaving] that they give is culture. We need to ensure that women are reaching senior positions where they can command higher salaries. There are lots of different reasons that contribute to the pay gap, but the more transparent we are about the statistics, the more likely we are to close that gap."

Our Work and Money team has written a lot about transparency in terms of women's salaries and their career paths, and about knowing what other women are making.
"There’s safety in numbers. I know that when I first entered the workforce as a young lawyer, I was just happy to be there. I would never have dreamed of asking my employer about benefits. I didn't ask whether there was paid leave or sick leave or workplace flexibility. I was trying to stay under the radar screen. Today, what we want young women to know is that they should speak up and advocate for themselves and know at the federal government with President Obama they have a partner who will advocate also on their behalf."

Women represent 20% of seats in Congress and similar percentages when you look at local and state offices and legislatures. Do you think electing more women to office could help bring attention and change to these issues?

"I think that when government reflects the composition of its citizens, it does a better job. Period. In our country that is rich in diversity, if we are going to have a government that is of the people by the people and for the people, it should reflect that diversity."

Why is it so hard to get more women in office? And not just women, but more diversity in general: women, people of color, people of various sexual orientations?
"We have to grow a pipeline and I think people need to have a sense that if they put themselves out there in the arena, that they’re going to be able to have support and thrive…The recognition that our government will be stronger and better if it reflects our citizenry — it’s something we all have to participate in to make that happen. It’s hard running for office. There are a lot of good reasons why people would shy away from it."

Besides running for office, what can millennial women who feel passionate about these issues do to make a difference?
"They have to engage and they have to vote. One way to ensure that you’re well represented is to engage in the most important act of citizenship, and that is to vote. That means you have to be informed and you have to do your homework and you have to make sure that the person who is representing you represents your values. But you can’t stop at simply voting. You also have to engage. As the president said when he ran for office, his motto wasn’t, 'Yes I Can,' it was, 'Yes We Can.' As a citizen, you can represent your responsibility to engage with your government. It’s not enough to love your country, you have to work to improve it."

These are all issues that do not begin and end with our time in Washington. Those are lifelong commitments.

Valerie Jarrett

We partnered with ABC to poll millennial women about the election — 78% said they think the outcome of this election is going to impact their lives, but fewer than six in 10 said that they were definitely going to vote. What do you think about that?
"I can’t speak on the current election, but I can say to you that in 2014, which [was] a midterm election, only 20% of young people voted. One of President Obama’s messages is that young people have to get engaged and ensure that government represents them and that their voices are heard.

"The first step to ensure your voice is being heard is to speak up. The change takes time. Change has always required an enormous amount of hard work, and it takes time, and it always takes longer than it should. That doesn’t mean that we give up, it just means we double down and work harder. That requires engagement and sacrifice and participation in the democracy. Our union isn’t perfect and we all have a responsibility to help perfect it.”

In a post on Medium
, the first lady asks readers to make their own pledge for tomorrow using the #StateofWomen hashtag. What’s yours?
"Never give up. My life’s work has been trying to help improve the quality of lives of others, particularly those who have traditionally been disadvantaged. And whether it’s helping a young girl aspire to go to college, or creating an environment where workplaces are friendly to working families, or ending sexual assault on our college campuses, these are all issues that do not begin and end with our time in Washington. Those are lifelong commitments."

You can watch the State of Women live on June 14 at this link, and follow the hashtag online using the #StateofWomen.

Editor's note: This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

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