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Obama: Flexible workplaces boost competitiveness

October 6, 2010, 5:35 AM UTC

Policies that promote a work-life balance are not only important for women in the workplace, they help U.S. companies compete.

By Tory Newmyer, writer

Addressing a gathering of the top women in business, President Barack Obama called for more flexible workplaces to accommodate those also trying to raise families.

The president, during a dinnertime speech to Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit on Tuesday, acknowledged the issue disproportionately impacts women. But he emphasized that family-friendly workplace policies are not simply women’s issues — or even solely aimed at helping workers achieve work-life balance. Instead, the president called the cause “an economic competitiveness issue,” arguing flexible work arrangements lower turnover and boost productivity.

“That’s why so many of your companies are already leading the way, embracing things like telecommuting, and flextime, and onsite childcare,” Obama said. “And my administration is committed to supporting efforts like these. Not just by investing in paid leave programs and child care tax credits. But also by making the federal government a model for the policies we’re encouraging.”

The president drew on personal history to illustrate strides women have made in the workplace, recalling his grandmother’s rise from secretary to bank vice president — one of the first in the state of Hawaii, despite only earning a high school degree. “That was an amazing accomplishment, but that position was her glass ceiling,” Obama said. “And for nearly two decades, she watched as men no more qualified than she was – in fact usually men she had trained – would get promoted up the corporate ladder ahead of her.”

Obama told the crowd that they would be largely responsible for ensuring the next generation of women continues their progress. But he said government would be a partner in that effort by funding research, upgrading infrastructure, and promoting exports. And he touted his administration’s work to improve education, particularly in math and science, “because we cannot sustain high-tech, high-wage jobs here in America when our kids lag far behind competitors around the world.”