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  • In celebration of International Women’s Day this month, President Biden signed an Executive Order establishing the White House Gender Policy Council to advance gender equity and equality.  Jennifer Klein, the Council’s Co-Chair and Executive Director, discusses the Council and the top gender equity challenges currently facing the United States, including health and reproductive rights, combating sexual harassment and violence, and income security and workplace fairness, especially in light of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on women in the workforce.


MODERATOR:  Welcome to today’s New York Foreign Press Center briefing.  My name is Daphne Stavropoulos and I’m today’s moderator.  I’m honored to introduce Jennifer Klein, the Co-Chair and Executive Director of the White House Gender Policy Council.  Prior to joining President Biden’s administration, she was the Chief Strategy and Policy Officer at TIME’S UP, where she led the organization’s strategic planning and managed all research and policy efforts.  She writes and teaches about domestic and global gender policy, including as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center.  I’ve shared a longer bio of her distinguished accomplishments with everyone who’s joined us here today, so in the interest of time, I’m going to turn it over and go over the ground rules.

Today’s briefing is on the record.  Ms. Klein is going to make a brief statement and we’ll immediately open the floor for questions.  She only has time for a few questions, so if you’re called on, please limit yourself to one question.  To indicate you have a question, raise your virtual hand and wait for me to call on you.  And when I do, please enable your audio and your video.

And with that, the floor is yours, Ms. Klein.  Welcome, and thank you for joining us.

MS KLEIN:  Thank you very much for having me.  I’m very excited to be with this group and to begin what I hope will be a longstanding relationship.

I am honored that President Biden asked me and my co-chair Julissa Reynoso to co-chair the new Gender Policy Council here at the White House.  There have been efforts in previous administrations to focus on women and girls in particular throughout the federal government, but this is a really unique council for many reasons.  The first is that, as you all know, it is a freestanding council, which relevant to this group means that it crosses both global and domestic issues.  So we are working closely with our colleagues at the National Security Council and of course the Domestic Policy Council and National Economic Council, but this really is a whole-of-government approach and a broad look at all issues that touch on gender equity and gender equality around the world.

The Council was set up by Executive Order.  It was launched, actually very appropriately, on International Women’s Day, March 8th, and it requires us to create a strategy which is due within 200 days.  But one of the other things that it requires – and I just want to mention here, which is really important – is a lot of exchange with stakeholders around the world and around the country, so whether that’s civil society, whether that’s other foreign governments, whether that’s multilateral organizations, the private sector and philanthropy.  In addition to it being a very government-centered approach – excuse me – which calls on every Cabinet secretary and head of agency to be part of the council, it really is an effort to work closely with partners around the country and around the world to really center the issues of gender equity and equality.

I will stop there, because I know there were a lot of questions, and I want to be sure that we get to them.  I’ll just add one more thing before we open it to questions, which is that, as you all know, women are 50 percent of the population; gender equity and gender equality are issues that cross borders and that affect all of us, so not only women but people of all genders and men as well.  And so there’s obviously a huge number of priorities.  I will say that we’re very much focused on, I’d say, three buckets of issues because each of the issues that I’m about to name really encompass and actually intersect with each other, but just sort of because of the time we’re in, living still through the COVID-19 pandemic, I’d just tell you that we are thinking about every day, all day, are these three things.

Number one is women’s economic security, because as we know women have been so hard-hit by this pandemic.  Number two, gender-based violence; again, as we know, rates of gender-based violence have spiked during the pandemic.  And number three, women’s health, and that includes reproductive rights, health and justice, and it also includes other health issues.  So we can delve more deeply into any of those issues and anything else that’s on your minds, obviously.  But I just wanted to name sort of because of the moment we are living in and the priority of this administration to that set of issues, that’s what – at least three of the things that I’m working on daily.

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much for those opening remarks and again for joining us today.  Let’s go to the questions.  I see that Niki has a question, Niki Natarajan from Indo-Asia News.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Daphne.  Thank you, Ms. Klein, for doing this.  I just heard you out and a couple of questions, but mainly this.  Like you said, so many women have been hard hit by the pandemic and during this time have lost jobs.  And when they come back in whatever roles and when they’re looking for work, trying to renegotiate, what is your message to them?  And the reason I’m asking you this is because you must be doing these listening sessions and getting so much of information in, so you know what are all those issues, the pinpoints on both sides.  How should women come at this when they come back from breaks?

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Niki.

MS KLEIN:  Thanks.  That’s such a great question.  And as you just pointed out, first of all, many of the issues have long existed, right?  There have been issues of women’s labor force participation and parity in the workforce and equity in the workforce and, by the way, safety in the workforce for generations.  And if there is any moment that we are in – I was about to use the word “opportunity” and stopped myself because, obviously, this pandemic provides no – nothing resembling an opportunity – but it is a moment that has made these issues really visible, perhaps, in a way that they haven’t been before.  And just in this country, 2 million fewer women are in the workforce now than there were a year ago in February, and that brings women’s labor force participation to a 30-year low.  We have taken 30 years back.

So you are so right to ask the question, first of all, why are women leaving the labor force, and second of all, what to do as they think about coming back and have the opportunity to come back.  And it is all of our responsibility, right?  So what we’ve seen is a pandemic, a health crisis, and on top of that an economic crisis, and on top of that a caregiving crisis.  And so there’s no surprise that women are leaving the labor force in such record numbers, both in the United States, by the way, and around the world.  I think the World Economic Forum actually came out with its latest numbers, and right here in the United States it will take another 61.5 years to reach economic parity.  And again, those – those numbers are mirrored around the world.

So I think there’s a couple of thing as women think about having the ability to come back into the labor force.  Number one is that we need to meet caregiving needs, and this is a place where, for example, the United States is far behind many other countries, right?  We need investments in childcare.  We need paid family and medical leave because that – we are almost unique in not offering that to our workers.  And people may have seen the President made a major announcement yesterday to think about infrastructure and job creation, and one of the areas that he focused on, among the roads, the bridges, the physical infrastructure, the broadband, the things that we need to get economic recovery fully underway, is caregiving and investing in those paid caregivers who really are the backbone of our economy.

I mean, another thing we’ve seen in this pandemic is that workers who are – who have, by the way, long been essential have been recognized as essential, literally using that word to describe those caregivers, to describe childcare providers, healthcare providers, grocery workers, right, the people making – farmworkers, people making and delivering our food.  Anyway, all to say that all of those workers often in this country, and again, this is mirrored so much around the world, often women of color and low-paid workers, need jobs with adequate pay and adequate dignity.

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much.  The next question goes to Ibtisam Azem from Al Arabiya News.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thank you, Daphne.  Thank you, Ms. Klein.  My name is Ibtisam Azem from the daily Arabic newspaper Al-Araby Al-Jadeed.  My – first I have a follow-up on what – your latest point.  And I was wondering if you could also walk us through the practical steps that you, that the Biden administration may take in order to tie gender, class, and – gender, class, and race issues, and yeah, if on the practical part, like if you could tell us more about what exactly you would do there.

And my question is on relationships with foreign governments, whether through aid but also regular relationships, to which extent you will tie also the gender equality issue to this relationship, to which extent you are going to check on – especially when it comes to aid, no matter which kind of aid – on these issues.  Thank you very much.

MS KLEIN:  So starting with the question about the relationship between race and gender and ethnicity and income, that is very much built into our DNA.  So a couple of process points just to show you how that is being lived on a daily basis, not only at the White House but really around the federal government.

As I mentioned, an executive order created the Gender Policy Council.  An executive order also created an initiative, pretty unprecedented initiative, on race equity that actually predated the council.  And the team of folks who are leading the race equity work and my team leading the gender equity work are literally joined, and we work together literally every day to ensure that the intersections between race and ethnicity and other forms of discrimination are being thought about together and really, again, across the government.  So we’re working with every department with that lens in mind.

And just to take – to return to the example that we were just talking about, our work on COVID and the health response to COVID, where equity is deeply built into everything we are doing to try to actually deliver the services that people need to address the health issues, but also the economic issues.

So, again, that is being done with a huge focus – I would really say an unprecedented focus – on racial and gender equity together.  Even things that might sound nerdy, but really I think are deeply important – data collection, right.  There is an equity-related data working group that has been formed to look at the data we’re collecting.  Because as we know, if you don’t measure it, you don’t do it, and if you don’t measure it, you don’t actually know what problem you have that needs to be addressed.

So it seems small, something that I’ve been deeply committed to for a long time, but it really forms the heart of any policy response.  So those are just a few examples of how this is being lived on a daily basis.

And to your second question, again, I think that what you are seeing – again, to take an example from the last couple of weeks, really, I think it might have even been this week – is the State Department released the Human Rights Reports.  And Secretary Blinken’s statement when they released those reports I think says a great deal about, first of all, America’s re-engagement in multilateral organizations, and in the notion that human rights matter not only to people around the world, but to us as well.  The human rights of others are important to the United States, and –talked about the importance of human rights, talking about human rights very broadly as a whole set of issues, talking specifically about the relationship between gender equality and human rights.

So, again, I think what you – I hope have seen already but will continue to see is really a re-engagement by the United States in issues of equity, in issues of human rights, and also, by the way, in living those values very much in the policies that we put in place.  And that extends beyond rights.  I am the first one to – it’s a inviolable rule that human rights matter.  They’re issues of fairness, they’re issues of justice, and that should be enough.  But they’re also issues of strategic importance, and I think you’ll see the United States, in all of our engagement, seeing that connection too.

MODERATOR:  Thank you so much.  The next question goes to Alex Raufoglu from Turan News Agency.  Go ahead, Alex.

QUESTION:  Yes, thank you very much, Daphne.  Thanks for this opportunity.  I represent Azerbaijan’s independent news agency, Turan.  Just to continue on the same line where you left, in terms of foreign policy, President Biden recently signed an executive order to prioritize gender equality in foreign policy.  The country where I come from, Azerbaijan, recently made very wrong headlines going after the Women of Courage awardee Shahla Qumbatova, or recently targeting the daughter of the country’s opposition leader, Jamil Hasanli.  I wonder if you just take the opportunity and if you have any message for the women and authorities in countries such as Azerbaijan in order to demonstrate that the U.S. takes gender issues seriously.  Thanks so much.

MS KLEIN:  Yeah, thank you so much for that question.  And I’m so glad you pointed out the courageous women that you have just – you’ve just pointed to, because we should all be grateful to them.  And we are.  And as I said, really built into the executive order that created this council – and I will just pause for a second – it was not obvious that this Gender Policy Council would work both domestically and globally, right.  That was a sort of new facet of the work – not that women’s rights and gender equality have not been front and center to the U.S. Government before, but it was just to name it and center it in a way that was really different than what had happened before.

And so the order explicitly calls for gender equality through diplomacy, development, trade, and defense, and it calls for implementing U.S. commitments to women’s involvement in peace and security efforts and recognizing the needs and contributions of women and girls in humanitarian crises and in development assistance.

So again, all of that is not only what we want to be doing, what the President has told us to do, but it is literally required of us now.  And I think we participated, for example, in the Commission on the Status of Women – as you highlighted, had the International Women of Courage Awards at the State Department, which was attended not only by Secretary Blinken and the U.S. Representative to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and the First Lady, of course – again, hoping to send more than a signal of the importance of these issues, and the importance of recognizing the contributions of women and others around the world who are fighting for these rights, and sort of our acknowledgment of the partnership between U.S. Government, other governments, other multilateral organizations, but also, quite frankly, the civil society and the individuals around the world who are leading the charge and in many cases know best what they need and what support they deserve, quite frankly, from the United States.

QUESTION:  Thank you.

MODERATOR:  Ms. Klein, I know that you have to – you have another commitment, and we really appreciate your time.  I want to be respectful of your schedule today.  Thank you so much for giving your time, for speaking with us.  The transcript will be available later today.  Today’s briefing was on the record, and thank you once again, and we hope to welcome you back to the Foreign Press Center at a future date whenever you’d like.  Thank you.

MS KLEIN:  I would really like that, and thank you all for the work that you are doing as journalists which requires a lot of courage yourselves.  So thank you.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, and good afternoon.

MS KLEIN:  Thank you.

U.S. Department of State

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