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Linda Tarr-Whelan's picture

Recently I was asked a terrific question by an Australian (and soon to be an American) woman at a training for women bloggers thinking about running for office. BlogHer and the White House Project had put together a great program. I talked about my experience in international work as an Ambassador which gave me a window into how mothers fared in other countries. My questioner said she had lived in a number of countries which raised a big question in her mind. “Why,” she asked, “do American women – compared with those in many other countries – put up with such Draconian policies that make it really tough to combine career and family?”

That’s a great query. Her question has stayed on my mind. Real life tells us there are real costs to moms and their families – even more than ever in these tough economic times. Child care and after-school programs are being cut. Options for school or camp were unaffordable to many this summer. High unemployment, lack of full-time jobs or jobs with benefits has families in a squeeze. But that doesn’t really answer the question.

Here are some threads of an answer from my experience.

First, we are a highly individualistic country, in contrast to many other societies that take seriously the idea that it “takes a village to raise a child.” When I talked about this to a fairly large audience of women in South Carolina it genuinely startled me when a woman stood up and shouted, “That’s socialism.” Labels are obscuring conversations we should have about what families need and why. Perhaps we are part of the story: in a series of focus groups with moms in the Boston area we heard over and over, “It is my responsibility since I decided to have our children.” It left me wondering where the dad and our society fit into the picture.

While I agree our children are our responsibility, it doesn’t mean we couldn’t use great support systems like universal voluntary pre-school at age 3, instituted in Japan and France. Maybe, like our future daughters and daughters-in-law undoubtedly will, you could have used a long-term paid leave when your child was born, similar to what exists in every single developed country except our own. Several former American colleagues married English men and had babies born in London. Each got one year’s paid leave and a guarantee of their job back with the potential of flexibility for both parents.

There is another difference affecting the policies for women and families that isn’t so obvious. We simply don’t have enough women at policy tables to ratchet up family support on the priority list. While we think of this country as a leader on gender equality, we’re often not. In fact, over the last fifteen years we have fallen dreadfully behind other countries – down from 42nd in the world to 71st on a ranking of the presence of women in Congress. How could that happen? Whether due to complacency or inattention, we aren’t putting enough of our time and energy into having more women making more decisions.

First, let’s bust some myths to see why we don’t have a critical mass of women making public policy decisions. Money isn’t holding us back – women who run for office generally raise as much money as similar male candidates. Talent isn’t the culprit – women are the majority of college graduates and successful professionals, community leaders and entrepreneurs. Opportunity isn’t holding us back – many appointments to boards and commissions which are often a first step to running for office go to men because women fail to apply. Lack of training isn’t holding us back – the White House Project, the Center for American Women and Politics, and a lot of local groups provide great programs and ways to be involved to help more women win.

Although it is less visible, there is a real cost that goes beyond our families to the economy and competitiveness of our country when a great deal of our best talent (overwhelmingly moms) opts out or never opts in because workplace equality doesn’t really exist. Look for yourself at the costs I am talking about. Check out “A Market Punishing to Mothers”, David Leonhardt’s article in the New York Times. Leonhardt, an economist, makes a strong point that “the main barrier [to gender equality in the workplace] is the harsh price most workers pay for anything other than the old-fashioned career path.” That path provides no flexibility and precious little room for motherhood.

In a letter to the editor about this piece Cathy Benko, vice chairwoman and chief talent officer of Deloitte goes further. “The reality is that the corporate ladder paradigm has outlived its useful, century-old life and no longer represents how today’s careers are really built or how so much of today’s work gets done.”

Extensive research tells us that a critical mass of women decision-makers at every power table will change this paradigm in both business practices and public policies. One or two isn’t enough to overcome old thinking and bring to light the studies showing how family and work policies level the playing field, are cost effective and increase productivity. When I did the research for Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping up to Leadership and Changing the World women told me over and over, “our skills are really untapped.” Until we solve the work/family balance issues, that sentiment won’t change because moms will continue to feel responsible and continue to lack support systems.

You can help make a difference. If you want to be sure that motherhood doesn’t come with such a high price to long-term success and family economic security, get involved. Let your voice be heard and advocate for change locally and on-line. Help see that we reach the 30% Solution with enough women at the table to change from what is to what’s needed. Take a good look at who is already in office in your town or legislative district. Couldn’t you do at least as well? Or, is there a friend that you could help run for office? Is there a woman running where you can roll up your sleeves and help her win? An election is just around the corner, do your homework and bring others along to the polls to vote.

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