Summit 2015

Valerie Jarrett takes up the caregiving crisis in America

Top adviser to President Obama leads a feisty conversation on how working moms are viewed in the workplace

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Valerie Jarrett, one of the president’s most trusted advisors, talks to women trapped between the demands of career and caring for children, spouses and aging or ailing parents—and to entrepreneurs finding new ways to address this social and economic challenge.

A single mom who soared all the way to the corridors of the White House, Jarrett personally understands the need for caregivers. When her daughter was young, she had the anxiety-provoking experience of finding child care through her local paper.

“I finally found the most amazing woman,” said Jarrett, a senior advisor to President Barack Obama and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls. “Every day, at about five minutes to eight, I would panic, ‘what if she doesn’t show up?’ I had all the help in the world and I still felt like I was hanging on by my fingertips.”

Jarrett shared the stage with four women who found themselves in a similar situation at some point in their lives, asking: Who will take care of my child, parent, spouse?

A mother of six and a military spouse, Betty Easley’s life almost fell apart. Her husband’s erratic behavior was causing problems at work and at home. For six years, the couple fought and were edging close to divorce when he was finally diagnosed with a head injury and PTSD.

“He was going to be kicked out of the military, he was one step away before one doctor said ‘there is no way I am going to sign this paperwork,’” a signature that could have ended the PTSD sufferer’s career, Easley said. She herself had long struggled to understand her husband’s trauma. “I didn’t know what he was carrying. He wouldn’t say anything. He would just say, ‘you don’t understand, you weren’t there.’ He held it in.”

Easley, like many other women, had to leave her job in order to hold her household together. “My employers weren’t so much saying ‘you gotta make this choice,’” she said. “There’s nothing like when you’ve been off a day and you go into the office and there’s whispering.”

This unspoken—and sometimes overt—pressure at work is at the heart of the matter when it comes to caregivers. Many women feel guilt and other consequences in the workplace when they must take time off. Paid leave in the United States lags behind other developed countries, often leaving women with a non-choice: job or family.

Shelby Ramirez Martinez joined the ranks of Americans confronted with that unsolvable problem. Her daughter and father both had to go into surgery in the same week, and Martinez was the only one who could care for them. The sick days she took and the salary she lost started a downward spiral, with rising stacks of bills and eviction notices. At one point, Ramirez wondered if her employers were in fact discriminating against her, which is when she joined 9to5, an organization that helps women work toward economic justice.

Jarrett turned the discussion to the solutions being minted by panel members.

“Care is not a sexy issue and people do not want to talk about it,” said Sheila Lirio Marcelo, the founder and  CEO of Care.com, which helps families connect with caregivers in a way that alleviates parental anxiety. “We invest in roads, we invest in bridges but we don’t invest in care infrastructure.” Marcelo shifted her attention to caregiving after her father was hurt while watching her son, a crisis that inspired her to start the company.

Like many other entrepreneurs, Katharine Zaleski was also inspired by personal experiences to found her company, PowerToFly: she looked at a problem she faced, solved it, and then decided to help others do the same. Her company connects people with jobs all over the globe, effectively cutting out the “middle man”—in this case, the office itself, a physical space limited by geography.

When Zaleski was nine months pregnant, “I would haul myself on the subway and go Skype with the guy next to me,” she said. She asked herself why, and decided that commute time would be much better used to drop children off at school or give them their snack. The idea soon expanded to the world, with clients from the Middle East, for example, working for major companies like Hearst in New York City.

Increasingly, women in the workplace who are also caregivers are promoting the common-sense idea that such solutions will eventually benefit everyone. Families pay more for childcare than in-state tuition in many parts of the country, yet there is still too little regard for the important economic role such care plays. Essential domestic responsibilities continue to be taken for granted as “women’s work.”

“Until you have a baby, you just don’t know. And by the way, men don’t know. They think they had the baby,” Jarrett noted. “Have you ever heard a woman say they’re babysitting? And while I’m on this rant, when men leave the office to go to a little league game or go to the doctor, what do they say, ‘Oh isn’t that nice? Isn’t he a wonderful dad?’ When a woman leaves early? ‘Is she really committed?’”

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