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House and Home: Congress and the Work-Life Balance

As the 109th Congress came back into session this month, all eyes were on those with priority seating at the presidential inauguration. Members of the House and Senate took their seats on the Capitol steps to watch George W. Bush’s swearing-in, then retired to Statuary Hall for a velvet-festooned luncheon of roast quail and crème brulee. Yet, often overlooked at state events are the Congressional staffers who make Congress work not just for the Members but for the public.

During the past decade, the membership of Congress has moved toward gender equity, and so too have Congressional staffs. Yet while men and women now hold many positions in equal numbers, all is not equal on Capitol Hill. These disparities foretell of problems that cannot be solved simply by increasing the number of women.

The new issues facing Congressional staffers — indeed millions of workers nationwide — must be solved by fundamentally rethinking the way we ask people to contribute in the workplace. If Congress is not able to clean its own “House,” it will certainly be unable to address the myriad problems entailed in balancing work and life.

A recent voluntary Internet study conducted by the Women’s Political Leadership Forum at George Washington University found that 30 percent of the respondents do not feel they have a good work-life balance. An additional 9 percent were unclear, while a majority of the 60 percent who said the balance was acceptable were either single or child-free.

Said one respondent who is currently happy with her work-life balance: “My life focuses very significantly on work, as does my partner’s, and we are able to see each other during work-related activities. I do not have other family in the area. If I had children, I do not believe they would receive the attention necessary for proper child-raising.”

Women continue to face gender barriers on the Hill: 31 percent feel that being a woman has had a mild negative impact on their Hill career, while 61 percent believe men are more respected than women, and 62 percent believe men are paid more than women. But the real tipping point seems to come when women become parents.

While 43 percent of respondents felt women were hindered in their career because they were moms, 81 percent said it did not have an impact on men. Indeed, being a parent was almost a complete neutral for men: 88 percent felt it had no impact on job performance, yet more than 23 percent felt women were less effective after becoming parents.

This dichotomy creates a host of problems for our nation’s policy makers and for our nation itself. We have a federal policy-making body that is inhospitable to fully-engaged parents, particularly women. The women who have made it to the Hill are succeeding and loving their work — yet most have the shadow of motherhood lurking outside their cubicles. Nearly 75 percent of the respondents without children said they plan to have them in the future, and of those women, roughly 40 percent said they would either look to a part-time schedule (31 percent) or quit altogether (9 percent).

Despite claims of serving our nation’s families, very few of those working on Capitol Hill have the kind of family life espoused as the ideal of “family values.” How can our nation’s leaders claim to know what it is that our nation needs to strengthen families when its own policies and work environment seem to shun those who seek a familial path? And how are we going to publicly address these needs in our nation’s businesses and organizations when Congress doesn’t seem to be able to even see the problem in its own House?

A further insult comes in the revelations in Ann Crittenden’s new book, “If You’ve Raised Kids, You Can Manage Anything: Leadership Begins at Home,” in which she eloquently describes many top executives and leaders, both male and female, who credit parenting skills as a key to helping them develop their leadership talents. While one can certainly exhibit leadership skills without being a parent, we should not have an entire Congressional staff dominated by those without children or who are uninvolved in their day-to-day upbringing.

If Congress is truly going to address the challenges facing our country, it needs to look at its own house first. By working to develop a culture where people in all of life’s stages are welcome, we might start to see innovations on transportation and employment, such as alternative hours or telecommuting. We might see health insurance programs that separate coverage from work so that those who are doing the important work in the home are not left vulnerable during the time they spend there. We might see innovative approaches to Social Security, in which a worker’s life is not spent either overworking or not working at all, but rather blending work and life in a way to keep everyone vital throughout their life cycle. Who knows, we might even see a shift in foreign policy and more thought put into going to war, as the effort and energy spent in raising children helps make the decision to send them into harm’s way a very serious one.

When asked, most people would tell you they want to spend more time on their families and themselves. If Congress took heed of that call and the Members did more of their own work-life balancing, they might begin seeing the world in a different way, and solutions to our challenges a bit clearer. After all, political leadership is about serving our country, and that experience begins by serving our families — something we all share in common regardless of our political persuasion.

Kathleen Schafer is a professor at George Washington University. Kristina Rasmussen is a research assistant.

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