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Phoebe Taubman's picture

Governor Sarah Palin has been bad news for those fighting for better work/family balance on two counts. She has unleashed a torrent of criticism, even from progressives, that amounts to old-fashioned sexist discrimination. And she has given the right a poster child for the case that women can succeed at both family and work responsibilities, even on the grandest of stages, with no changes in public policy. Both are wrong.

Let's start with family responsibilities discrimination. Never has a male candidate for higher office—not even Robert Kennedy, father of eleven—had his ability, commitment or morality questioned on the basis of having a family with small children. Yet, shortly after Governor Sarah Palin burst onto the national scene, critics were asking who would care for her children, including her baby with Down’s syndrome and her pregnant 17-year old daughter. Many worried that she could not possibly be both a good mother and an effective Vice President. As one woman quoted in the Washington Post put it, “[C]an you be president with a tiny baby and a big family and give both what they deserve?”

Comments like these reflect an all too familiar reality for working mothers. Negative stereotyping of women with children is one of the most pernicious forms of discrimination in the workplace today and examples are numerous. One lawyer and mother of two was told by her boss that working mothers can’t be both good mothers and good employees; he explained, “I don’t see how you can do either job well.” In another case, a school psychologist with a record of outstanding performance reviews alleged that she was denied tenure because she was a mother of a small child. Her supervisors said it was “not possible for [her] to be a good mother and have this job,” and expressed concern that she could not “perform her job with little ones.”

With such stereotypes pervading our culture, is it any wonder that even a Governor would conceal her pregnancy for seven months in order to avoid public criticism?

Family responsibilities discrimination—discrimination against employees who shoulder caregiving responsibilities for family members—is just one of a range of challenges facing parents and other caregivers in a culture that is often inflexible and hostile to family needs. The United States is alone among industrialized countries in failing to guarantee any paid maternity leave for new mothers. Ninety-six million Americans can’t take paid time off to care for a sick child. Workers are afraid to ask for flexible work schedules lest they be fired, demoted or otherwise penalized, and most part-time or reduced hours jobs are a ghetto of underpaid mothers with no health care or other benefits.

Governor Palin has conquered many of these challenges with the help of a supportive husband, his generous employer, her flexible workplace and the money to hire additional assistance. But she has not revealed what, if anything, she would do as Vice President to help others who are struggling with the same challenges, and who lack the resources she has.

Does she agree with her running mate’s opposition to the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act and his belief that women simply need “education and training” to close the persistent pay gap with men? Does she support efforts to encourage flexible workplaces, like the one that allowed her to juggle her breast pump and blackberry so successfully? And would she support laws to make discrimination against caregivers illegal? Nearly 22,000 concerned voters have signed an open letter to Governor Palin seeking her position on these issues, but when 15 of them attempted to deliver the letter to her office they were turned away.

One successful working mom on a national ticket does not cure our country’s failure to value the work of caregiving. We don’t need cynical window dressing or the distraction of debating Governor Palin’s parenting choices. Instead, we need public policies that really value families and ensure that Americans don’t have to choose between the jobs they need and the families they love.

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