Remarks to the Inauguration of the 2012 National Work-Life and Family Month Event
Secretary of State
The video below is available with
closed captioning on YouTube.
Thank you all very much. Thank you. Thank you. I’m actually trying to overlook that, but – (laughter). But thank you for that warm welcome.
I’m very pleased to be here today and see so many of you from across the State Department who are committed to helping to make this a better workplace for all of us. In particular, I want to thank the Work-Life Division in Employee Relations and the members of Balancing Act and Executive Women at State for their important leadership.
I think that this is an issue that is not a woman’s issue. It is a human issue, and a family issue. After all, there is little doubt that balancing work and family responsibilities is done in one way or another by people everywhere, every day. And I believe strongly that we need to open this issue up for discussion, to assist in solving problems, to help build a strong workforce and strong families. And as Melanne has said, I’ve been fighting for such policies for a very long time.
Before I had my daughter, it was theoretical, you know? (Laughter.) After I had my daughter, it was urgent. (Laughter.) And it’s also similarly gone from an afterthought in policy discussions to the centerpiece of debates. And we are committed to elevating discussion about this issue and making sure it is taken seriously at the highest levels of both the public and the private sector.
Now, there is no question we have certainly made progress during the course of my lifetime because I do remember how things used to be. Many years ago when I was pregnant, I was in a law firm. I was the only female partner. And they’d never had a female partner, and certainly not a pregnant female partner. And they literally just were not sure what to do with me. I would walk down the corridor, getting more and more pregnant. (Laughter.) And the men in the firm would, like, look away – (laughter) – never say a word, and I just kind of thought I’m just going to wait to see if anybody says anything to me – (laughter) – about the fact that I’m going to have a baby.
So, nobody ever did. And eventually, February 27th, 1980, I gave birth to my daughter. And I was in the hospital when one of my partners called to say congratulations, and then in the course of it asked, “Well, when are you coming back to work?” (Laughter.) And I said, “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe in four months.” And that’s how I created the firm’s first-ever maternity leave policy. (Laughter and applause.)
And a lot has changed since then, but we still have work to do. And sometimes conversations about balancing family and work lead to arguments instead of a search for agreement. And it is absolutely clear there is no right or wrong way to have a family, or even whether you do have a family. There is no right or wrong way to build a career, or even if you do have a career. Women and men need to find approaches that work for them, and that approach may change over the course of your life. What seems possible and doable in your 20s may not be so clear as you get older, and vice versa.
I have friends who had their first child at 17, and friends who had their first child at 45. Those are very different life experiences. But what is so great about especially being a woman in the United States of America in the 21st century is you have so many more choices and decisions that you can make that are right for you, whether anybody else would make the same choice. And you have to construct that life. Now, some people get nervous by all that choice because it seems somewhat daunting. But I think it’s a great advantage.
It’s also true, as Melanne said, that it’s no longer enough to talk about balancing family and work and only look at the challenges of parenting because so many of us will have the privilege and responsibility of caring for aging relatives. It might be a grandparent or a parent or an aunt or uncle, someone who is aging. My mother lived with me until her death a year ago. And it was wonderful that she was in good health, but it was also something I had to consciously think about to ensure that we were getting a step ahead of what her health needs were and her physical challenges. And it took time, which I was happy to give, but it’s something that more and more of us are going to be having to do.
We all have complicated lives, men and women, parents and non-parents. And in addition to thinking through the choices that are right for you, we should all be able to count on our workplaces and our country to give us more support as we balance these important responsibilities. So there is no question that this is a subject of interest for every manager here at the State Department. When the Department provides options that help our employees lead more balanced lives, I don’t think it takes a leap of logic to conclude that people are less stressed and therefore healthier and happier.
Probably the most stressed people outside of the military field or occupations that are physically dangerous are people who are caregivers. It is an enormously stressful life experience, and I’ve known many people who have taken it on gladly, but whose health has suffered, whose life has become more circumscribed, and whose work often makes absolutely no accommodation for the responsibilities that have to be met.
We want people who are productive and dedicated here at the State Department. And research indicates that people who work in more flexible offices are over 20 percent more likely to stay with that employer over time, and that’s an important thing for us to remember as we work to keep talented people here at the State Department.
In the QDDR, we call for the establishment of a real 21st century workforce, because if we want to succeed in recruiting, retaining, and motivating our work force, we have to address the issues that are being discussed today. So over the last few years, we’ve identified new ways to help you maintain and achieve a better balance. We’ve expanded options for childcare through Diplotots and the FSI daycare center. We’ve installed lactation rooms for new mothers throughout the Department. We’re starting to think differently about how we manage our staff recognizing that what you do may be important than where and when you do it, so we are becoming more open to options like telework.
Additionally, HR, the Office of Medical Services, and the A Bureau are building a holistic Wellness Program for employees that will examine the effects of stress and of work-life conflict on our health. And we’re looking into additional resources for emergency childcare so parents will have a safe place to leave their kids during a crisis.
I remember so well when we had what I think is still called “Snowmageddon” a few years ago, and there was some very important work that needed to get done, because the rest of the world was not under two feet of snow, and one of our dedicated employees in the operations center was a single mom, had nowhere to leave her son, and called and asked her supervisor, and the supervisor asked somebody on my staff, and somebody on my staff asked me if I would have any problem with her bringing her son to work if we sent the four-wheel vehicles out to pick them up. I said, “Of course not.” I mean, how could we expect this person to do this work under a time pressure that is very intense when she has to leave her son at home alone? I don’t think so.
So I think we’ve got to be smart about how we keep people productive and engaged. And speaking personally, there is nothing you can say to me that makes me happier than say something nice about my daughter. And there was nothing when I was a practicing lawyer and trying to balance everything together that made me less stressed than knowing that if I couldn’t be there, somebody trustworthy was or we could work out some like-minded arrangement.
Now, much of the responsibility for building a workplace that is supportive of work-life balance does fall on senior leadership. And my team and I have committed to doing our part. But we all play a critical role in supporting a more flexible workplace. So it is truly heartening to see groups like this come together to put on events like this.
Now, I also know that sometimes there are concerns surfaced that people who don’t have children, or people who don’t have aging parents, become a little put out because people who have either and have to fulfill those responsibilities may be getting to leave work early or doing something from home or whatever it might be. And obviously no one should ever take advantage of the flexibility that is provided to help support all of us in getting the right balance going.
But at the same time, I think it is important always to put yourself in the other person’s shoes because there are a lot of things that I’ve never experienced but that I have to think about when I meet people who have. And if I have over the course of my long career had employees who were having mental health challenges and needed time off, or who had physical illnesses – serious physical illnesses – and even after they were released by their doctors were not quite up to full speed yet, I haven’t thankfully had those problems, but I thought what it would be like, having gone through that, if all of a sudden coworkers and bosses began to write you off because you were no longer able to perhaps stay as late as you once did.
So I think there is an importance to focusing on work, to being as productive as possible, to doing what is expected and, whenever possible, going beyond what is expected, but also to be very clear that you have other responsibilities and you want to be able to fulfill them as well.
So this is a conversation that has gone on for years. I expect it will continue to go on for years more, and everyone has to set their own goals and their own boundaries, but the workplace and government can help make it easier. Melanne referenced the Family and Medical Leave Act, which was the first bill that my husband signed. And before he was President, I worked on that back in the 1980s with a coalition of women’s groups and other groups that were committed to trying to avoid the loss of a job when something serious, particularly an accident or an illness, happened to you.
We didn’t cover everybody, but we laid down an important marker for our country that people work to live, even though we love our work, and that we as a nation, as a society, have to try to be more supportive of that. And someone who has been on the forefront of talking about and advocating for these kinds of changes for many years now is Ellen Galinsky.
I first worked with Ellen on the White House Conference on Child Care that Melanne mentioned. She truly is a pioneer in this area, having spent her entire career advocating for more flexible workplaces. She is the president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute, which is one of the foremost organizations in the world in this field. And she’s an expert at the balancing act herself, having led this illustrious career while raising two children of her own. So I know you are in for a real treat to hear from not only an expert but a practitioner. So please join me in welcoming Ellen to the podium. (Applause.)
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