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Helping women reach their economic potential

By Valerie Jarrett and Tina Tchen,

The American Jobs Act, which President Obama sent to Congress two weeks ago, is vital for our country’s women. It would keep 280,000 teachers — most of them women — from losing their jobs due to budget cuts. It would put hundreds of thousands of unemployed women back to work. It would put more money in the pockets of almost 80 million working women, by cutting their payroll taxes next year. As the president has said, Congress has a responsibility to pass this bill.

However, even as we wait for Congress to act, the Obama administration is taking steps to create economic opportunities for women and girls.

On Monday, for example, the National Science Foundation (NSF) will announce new steps to make it easier for women to pursue careers in engineering and the sciences — fields that are critical to our nation’s economic growth.

Women working in science, technology, engineering and math careers earn 33 percent more than those in other occupations, and these “STEM” skills will become even more important in high-growth, high-tech fields such as health-care technology and advanced manufacturing.

As with women throughout the workforce, however, women in STEM jobs are often expected to establish themselves professionally at the same time they are starting families. This forces women to choose between their careers and their responsibilities at home. Understandably, many of our most promising young scientists and engineers drop out of the pipeline.

To support female innovators and help women contribute to the economy, the NSF is taking steps to allow researchers to balance their responsibilities in the lab with their responsibilities at home. For example, if a researcher needs to delay the start of a funded project for a family-related reason, such as taking care of a young child or an aging parent, the NSF will work with her to make that possible without causing her to lose her grant. If she needs to interrupt research to have a baby, there will be options to add the lost time onto the end of her funding period without penalty. In many cases, NSF will even pay for technicians who can keep labs and research projects running during a period of parental leave.

As an agency devoted to evidence-based decision making, NSF will also support research into the effectiveness of flexible workplace policies. This will ensure that the new programs are working and will help identify best practices to share with the public and private sectors.

For many women who dream of becoming scientists and researchers, these kinds of simple, common-sense changes will make a world of difference. And our entire economy can benefit, because if more women have the chance to pursue STEM careers, it will lead to more innovation, entrepreneurship and growth.

Monday’s NSF announcement also highlights the ways that flexible workplaces contribute to our economic competitiveness. There is a common misconception that workplace flexibility policies cost businesses money. In fact, the opposite is true. A study from the White House Council of Economic Advisers found that flexible workplaces often attract the best workers and experience reduced absenteeism, lower turnover and higher productivity. As President Obama has said, “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.”

We also recognize that a lack of work-life balance prevents many workers from reaching their economic potential. Today, nearly two-thirds of American families with children are headed by two working parents or by a single parent. These parents cannot thrive in a job where they are unable to care for their children. At a time when working men and women across our nation face deep economic uncertainty, it is wrong to ask them to choose between their jobs and their families.

We understand that these policies are no substitute for congressional action on the economy. But we also know that government can make a difference — through direct action and by working with outside organizations. A broad coalition of groups has joined the Obama administration in addressing workplace flexibility for those in STEM fields, including the Association for Women in Science, the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and the Association of American Universities.

When President Obama addressed the U.N. General Assembly last week, he made a powerful economic argument on behalf of the world’s women. “No country can realize its potential,” he said, “if half its population cannot reach theirs.” As the president pursues a short-term recovery and long-term prosperity, he will continue to focus on empowering America’s women and girls, and giving every American a chance to contribute fully to our economy.

Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to President Obama, chairs the White House Council on Women and Girls. Tina Tchen is executive director of the council and chief of staff to the first lady.

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