05/19/2014 10:55 am ET Updated Jul 28, 2014

Making Full Use of America's Talent


I told a friend recently that I thought that I was failing at everything -- my kids weren't getting enough of me, I wasn't doing everything that I wanted to at work and I wasn't spending enough time with my partner. Her response was to congratulate me for getting my work-life balance just right.

As an economist, I've spent my career thinking about trade-offs and how to make good decisions given all of the constraints -- like money, time, and opportunities -- that we face. And I know it is hard. When kids are young, their demands on parents' time is enormous, and the same thing is true when partners or parents or children are sick. We all have periods in our lives where our home needs are greater than at other times.

Most people I know address these challenges by eliminating everything outside of work and family. Getting together with childless friends becomes a luxury, exercise becomes impossible --unless you count lifting a heavy load of laundry with one arm, while holding an infant with the other, "exercise" -- and a good night's sleep becomes a distant memory. A friend recently complained to me that the grocery store she placed online orders with was no longer taking orders between 2 and 5 a.m. "But that's my only window for grocery shopping," she wailed.

And yet, my friends and I are among the lucky ones. I've spent most of my career as an academic. I work hard on research, teaching and writing, but I set my own hours and I control my own pace of work. When I had each of my children, I had months during which I was able to work from home, doing only as much as I could handle. My partner, a fellow academic, had the same luxury.

Workplace flexibility enabled us to bridge the gap between our care and career responsibilities, but many working women still don't have this option. Research shows us that women are deterred from entering certain professions with long hours or inflexible schedules because they worry about balancing work and family responsibilities, and are often forced into less productive career paths as a result. Many workers -- both men and women -- also lack access to paid family leave and high-quality affordable childcare, forcing them to make difficult choices between work and family. By limiting career options of some talented workers, we are failing to build an economy that can operate at its full potential and jeopardizing our ability to compete on the world stage. In order to continue making the kind of economic progress we've seen in the last 100 years, we're going to have to reshape the workplaces of today and tomorrow.

Workplaces can change -- many already have. Workplaces that offer part-time schedules, scheduling flexibility or work-from-home options have found that these policies can help recruit and retain workers, increasing productivity. However, more employers -- and employees -- need to be aware of these issues and how they can best be addressed to meet the needs of employers and employees alike. For these reasons, the White House, along with the Department of Labor and the Center for American Progress, is hosting a Summit on Working Families to set an agenda for a 21st-century workplace that works for all Americans.

Leading up to the Summit, we will be hosting a number of regional forums bringing together businesses, academics, elected officials, workers and other leaders to discuss best practices and inform the national Summit.

For all of the progress women have made in the 20th century -- gaining the right to vote, becoming nearly half of the workforce, and increasing our education, there is still work to be done to remove barriers that limit us from making full use of our nation's talent in the future. It is my hope that the Summit on Working Families will spark a national dialogue on how best to meet the needs of modern-day families and workplaces while strengthening our economic competitiveness. I am excited to be participating in the Boston forum, and hope to have a valuable conversation that can progress these important issues as we approach the national Summit in June.

This post is part of a series produced by The White House in conjunction with its Working Families Summit, the goal of which is to help "create 21st-century workplaces that work for all Americans." Today's regional summit in Boston is part of a series of events across the country leading up to the main event on June 23, 2014, in Washington, D.C. Read here to learn more about the effort.