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An Interview With Valerie Jarrett: Senior Advisor to President Obama Talks Gender Parity

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Recently, I sat down in the West Wing of the White House with Valerie Jarrett, Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement, and Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, to discuss the Council's efforts on workplace flexibility, equal pay, violence against women, and the overall state of gender parity in the United States.

An excerpt of the interview is below, while the full transcript can be found here.

Rahim Kanani: Among your various roles here at the White House, including Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement, you also serve as Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls. What inspired you to lead this Council?

Valerie Jarrett: The president asked me to do it, and I was honored to accept it because I care so passionately about improving the quality of life for women and girls, not just here in the United States, but internationally as well. I am a single mom and I raised a daughter who is now a young adult. I understand the challenges from the perspective of what I faced as a young girl and then as a single mom in my career that began in a pretty historically male-dominated business, practicing law in a large law firm. In looking at the path that I followed and seeing the possibilities for my daughter, while we've certainly made progress, it is not nearly as much as I would want.

The president was raised by a single mother, he is married to a woman balancing family responsibilities with work, and he is raising two daughters of his own. It is pretty easy to see how we would both conclude that promoting women and girls is something that is vitally important. And I think that in a country as successful as ours, we still have a long way to go in terms of parity for women, whether it's equal pay in the workforce or a whole host of other issues. I participated on a panel on workplace flexibility that is important not just for women and children, but really for the family. The president supports the PayCheck Fairness Bill that strengthens women's ability to demand equal pay. And particularly in this economic climate, equal pay and flexibility are very important to be healthy as a family.

Our focus is on raising public awareness and focusing on women and girls. We've made an enormous amount of progress toward that goal.

Rahim Kanani: What have been some of the major milestones?

Valerie Jarrett: We've had numerous milestones in just this short period of time. The first was getting every agency vested in the goal of improving the lives of women and girls and creating a mechanism for measuring the progress made on key policies and initiatives within the federal government. Our focus everyday is on what we are doing to move the ball forward.

We have a person designated in every agency who works with the Council, and I think that it sends a very positive signal to the rest of the world that our federal government is united in this effort. We have held forums here at the White House on workplace flexibility, and the first major bill signed into law by President Obama was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. Lilly was here a few weeks ago because we were trying very hard to push paycheck fairness through the Congress. Unfortunately, we fell two votes short. This is totally unacceptable in this day and time because this issue impacts all women who deserve equal pay. And so we're not going to give up, we're going to keep coming back, but we were able, even though we were unsuccessful, to forge a terrific alliance with a wide range of women's organizations from across the country who were advocating on behalf of this important law, and I think the Council provided a important vehicle to organize around this issue.

Rahim Kanani: Is the Council focused on domestic issues or is there an international dimension to the efforts?

Valerie Jarrett: We are absolutely focused on both domestic and international issues. For example, on the president's recent trip to Asia, when we were in Mumbai and Delhi, two mornings in a row I had meetings with seven or eight extraordinary women who were heading up NGOs working in India to provide a range of services to women from encouraging entrepreneurship, to sharing best practices to trying to eradicate domestic violence to equality in the workforce and opening up economic opportunity for women. We had a great discussion about best practices from what they're doing there and what we're doing here. The challenges are the same the world over.

Another good example is when the president hosted the entrepreneurial summit here with Muslim leaders from around the world. I moderated a panel focusing just on women and the specific challenges that women entrepreneurs face. And we found that around the world, the challenges are the same, whether it is gaining access to capital, risk-taking, or the ability to expand beyond a small business and grow. Those are all the same kind of hurdles that women face right here. They face them everywhere.

Rahim Kanani: And that unifies the struggle?

Valerie Jarrett: It's very unifying. We face the same challenges as many other parts of the world and the process of sharing best practices is effective. Several weeks ago, the World Bank hosted a forum on adolescent girls. I spoke about what we were doing to help that age group. They had a mentorship program that brought adolescent girls from several different countries to the United States where they had an opportunity to talk about leadership and mentorship and self-empowerment, and I talked about the Council on Women and Girls and what we were doing here.

We are always looking for opportunities to share these best practices, both domestically and internationally.

Rahim Kanani: With the recent passing of UN Human Rights Day on December 10th, 2010, what do you see as the biggest human rights challenge facing women and girls here in the United States?

Valerie Jarrett: Sadly, domestic violence is still a huge issue. One in every four women is a victim at some point in their lives.

Rahim Kanani: I have a statistic here that says in the United States, a husband, ex-husband, or intimate male partner, batters a woman every 15 seconds. What are some ways in which we can address this issue both in the short-term, and also in the long-term?

Valerie Jarrett: We had an event here at the White House a few weeks ago, and one thing we did there that's been different than what we have done historically, is we included men on the program...[more]

The full interview can be found here.