from Women Around the World and Women and Foreign Policy Program

A Conversation with Valerie Jarrett

November 13, 2017

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I recently hosted a CFR roundtable meeting with Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to the Obama Foundation, a board member of Lyft and Ariel Financial, and a senior advisor to the media company Attn. As one of President Obama’s closest and most trusted senior advisors from 2008 to 2016, Jarrett raised gender issues to the top of the agenda when she chaired President Obama’s White House Council on Women and Girls and oversaw the Offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs. While working in the Obama White House, Jarrett promoted policies like equal pay, a higher minimum wage, paid leave and sick days, affordable childcare, as well as international women’s human rights. Since leaving office, Jarrett has continued to champion women’s issues, for example in launching and co-chairing the Galvanize Program, which seeks to support women for leadership roles in political and economic life.

As a new member of the board of directors for the ride-sharing app Lyft, Jarrett shared her perspective on how the gig economy can benefit women as both employees and passengers of the company. As for the software side of the gig economy, it is well known that women are under-represented in science, math, engineering, and technology—or so-called STEM jobs. As I noted in a CFR report I co-authored last year—“Women in Tech as a Driver of Economic Growth”—training more women to undertake such jobs could help close the gap in the shortage of skilled workers in the tech sector. While that report focused on low- and middle-income countries in information and communication technology, women are also under-represented in the tech sector in affluent countries such as the United States.

Lyft itself issued a diversity report indicating that, though 42 percent of its total workforce identifies as female, only 18 percent of its tech team does. According to tech publication Recode, this may be comparable to—or even slightly better than—women’s representation in tech and engineering jobs at other ride-sharing services. Women and people of color appear to be underrepresented not only in jobs at the well-known ride-sharing app companies, but also at big tech companies, such as Google. The same is true of science and engineering jobs more broadly. The National Science Foundation found that, while there is gender parity in educational attainment in science and engineering, the same is not true of employment in the field. Only 18 percent of computer science employees are women, for example. And Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans are underrepresented in both education and employment in science and engineering.

As for the percentage of drivers who are women, while only twelve percent of taxi drivers nationally are women (and only one percent of cabbies in New York City), Jarrett noted that 27 percent of drivers at Lyft are women.  One survey indicates some evidence to suggest that women who drive for ride-sharing apps may earn less than men—by nearly $2 an hour—in part because women are less likely to drive peak shifts late at night on Fridays and Saturdays. One theory is that women have safety concerns about driving strangers late at night.

In response to concerns about safety for female drivers and passengers, there has been a steady rise in women-only ride-sharing apps, like Safr and See Jane Go. Other countries, like India and Germany, have instituted women-only train cars. Mexico City and Jerusalem have some gender-segregated buses—motivated, respectively, by concerns about sexual harassment and by ultra-orthodox religious views concerning the mingling of men and women. Are women-only transportation options a step back—towards self-segregation or even forced segregation?

Jarrett acknowledged the problem of women’s safety and discussed some of the ways in which ride-sharing services are addressing it—like the accountability provided when such ride-sharing services display a photo and the license plate of the driver. She noted that technology can be used in innovative ways to address safety concerns in this sector.

The benefits for women in the gig economy include flexibility and having greater control over working hours. Drawing on her own experience of raising a daughter as a single mother, Jarrett underscored how critical such flexibility can be. The inevitable trade-off in the gig economy, however, is that flexible hours often come with less job stability, inherent in the reality of being a contingent worker.

Collecting data and maintaining transparency is critical to closing the pay gap and addressing other workforce issues, Jarrett noted. She told a story about Salesforce. Two female employees approached the CEO Marc Benioff and told him that they didn’t make the same amount as their male counterparts. Benioff, known as a champion of corporate values, was surprised. He checked the numbers, found that the two women were right, and worked to close the pay gap.

In STEM jobs, the issue is not just about hiring, but also about retaining women in these jobs. Women stay on average three years in computer science fields, Jarrett pointed out. The number one reason why they leave: culture. The first step to changing this culture, Jarrett implied, is to collect the data that identifies the real issue.

Having women in leadership positions within a company (and on the boards of such firms) is important to changing this culture.

Maiya Moncino assisted in the preparation of this post.

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