Representative Paul Ryan, reluctant candidate for Speaker of the House, recently made headlines by issuing a list of conditions for his fellow House Republicans to meet before he will accept the job. Surprisingly, one of his requirements is their assurance that he will not have to sacrifice time with his family if he takes the gig. He’s not the only politician putting his loved ones in front of his career; Vice President Joe Biden has finally bowed out of the presidential race after having repeatedly expressed his reluctance to run for president, citing his need to grieve over his son’s unfortunate death from cancer earlier this year as having “closed the window” on the possibility of a Biden candidacy.
Both politicians have been praised to the skies by pundits of all political stripes for their integrity and commitment to their kin. Their actions have been called “touching”, “honest”, and “remarkable”, and I agree with their assessment completely. It’s wonderful to see powerful men publicly declaring their commitment to their wives and children, and in Rep. Ryan’s case, actually requiring concessions for family needs before accepting a prominent post. We’ve come a long way since the time when the extent of a man’s parental obligations consisted of giving their child a quick pat on the shoulder before setting off to work, plus the occasional game of catch in the backyard.
Despite the warm reception to the work-life balance burdens of these men, I have a nagging feeling that if a woman in the same position as either Rep. Ryan or V.P. Biden made similar remarks, they would encounter derision from the press, rather than applause. One need only perform a google search for “female politician family obligations” to find multitudes of research studies, opinion articles, and websites detailing the various ways in which a woman’s political ambitions can be dampened by familial commitments. The fact is, women today are still stereotyped as being one child away from becoming a stay at home mom, regardless of the true desires of the individual woman. Woman are encouraged to either put off having children, or put off their career aspirations until their children are older.
Without any doubt, women are woefully unrepresented in elected office. Statistically speaking, women make up approximately half of the population, yet we make up less than 20% of Congress, and around 24% of state legislatures. Currently, there are only five female governors, and several states have yet to elect a female governor at all. These numbers show that women are far away from achieving equal representation in our government.
A recent pew research study showed that a majority of Americans consider females and males to be equally capable of leadership, and that nearly 75% of study participants expected to see a female president elected within their lifetime. Despite the generally favorable opinion on our leadership ability, four in ten participants believed that women have to work harder than men to prove themselves in order to be successful in leadership positions, whether they be in politics or in the private sector.
It’s not uncommon to hear lawmakers and regular citizens alike bemoan the decay of the American family unit as a primary cause of many of our nation’s problems, ranging from crime all the way to economics. This lingering fixation on the ideal nuclear family, with women staying home with the children while men bring home the income, clearly illustrates a perception among some Americans that women are doing a disservice to their families by focusing on their political career goals. This public perception of women in office presents a major obstacle, and puts many aspiring female leaders on the offensive. The glass ceiling is a very real thing, and in order to break through it, women feel compelled to put their nearest and dearest on the back burner, lest they jeopardize their livelihoods by putting family first. Yes, we’ve come a long way baby, but until women can be respected for publicly asking for the same work-life balance allowances as men, instead of implicitly discouraged from asking in the first place, I can’t help but feel that we haven’t come far enough.
Rachel Eckhardt is an avid political enthusiast, litigation manager, military veteran, and creator of The Illusion of Choice, a blog covering American politics and current events. Follow Rachel on Facebook, or on Twitter at @illusionchoice1