Do high chairs belong in higher office?

By Malliga Och

Female Electeds in Scotland

Though the faces of politics today reflect a broader picture of the American electorate, the rules, procedures, and work environment of our highest-level deliberative bodies still reflect the systems of the past. In seeking to explain women’s continued underrepresentation, much emphasis is directed at women’s willingness (or unwillingness) to step forward as candidates.  However, what happens once women are elected is also critically important. For mothers, who frequently come home to a second shift after their professional work day ends, concerns about workplace policies, flexibility, and demands take on heightened importance. To better understand the dearth of women in politics, we should ask whether Congressional office is a welcoming profession to mothers who are balancing multiple responsibilities.

Questions of work-life balance dominate personal and public conversations as women’s professional leadership expands. Parental leave, flexible work hours, remote work, and childcare are prominent topics of discussion. Unfortunately, these debates often pass over political institutions, even though women, including mothers with small children, aspire to political careers. We need to ask ourselves: if we want more women in politics, isn’t it time to strategize how to make politics a more welcome and viable workplace for women with family responsibilities?

To find a valuable case study for improving women’s representation at home, we should look across the pond. In Scotland, parliament works for both men and women. When the Scottish parliament was re-established as a regional assembly (similar to state legislatures in the US but with less power) in 1998, women and gender equality advocates came together.  The Scottish Women’s Coordination Group and the 50/50 Campaign collaborated to ensure that the new Scottish constitution was built to ensure gender equality and that parliament would operate on new principles, provisions, and practices to reflect the unique challenges women face.

One of the four key principles  governing Scottish parliament is the principle of equal opportunity which includes a mandatory equal opportunity committee. The committee considers all matters of discrimination based on sex, race, marital status, disability, age, sexual orientation, language, social origins, or personal attributes such as religious beliefs.  But the Scottish parliament truly stands out because of the established rules and procedures that allow both men and women to balance work and family responsibilities: the parliament has family friendly sitting hours from 9 to 5:30 pm and on-site childcare for staff and visitors. Scottish parliament self-describes as a progressive employer and indeed, they offer flexible work hours, 30 days of annual leave, parental leave, and childcare vouchers.

“For the sake of democracy and for the good of society, it is crucial that women can view politics as a viable career option where they can have a meaningful impact. Women deserve and need to be at the table where decisions that affect all our lives are made.”

Orla O’ Connor, Director of NWCI

The Scottish parliament is not an exception by far. Today, the Legislative Council of New South Wales, the Legislative Assemblies of South Australia, Ontario, Manitoba, Quebec, and the National Assembly of Wales have all introduced family friendly sitting hours. In Ireland, the National Women’s Council has urged parliament to introduce video-conferencing and remote voting as well as regular business hours. And in Canada, MP Hedy Fry suggested that parliament switch to three-week blocks for constituency service and parliamentary session to provide families with relief from the burden of travel. With the use of technology, committees can work via video conference while members are back in their districts.

These international examples prove that politics can be conducted in a way that allows women to better balance their competing demands. This Mother’s Day, Political Parity is highlighting the challenges of our existing political institutions and uplifting stories of those who have succeeded in transforming government into a more family-friendly work environment. Mothers shouldn’t be forced out of political careers because their family responsibilities are irreconcilable. Changing the practice of our elected workplaces is a necessary step towards a reflective and effective democracy where the voices of not just the few but of everyone are present.

First published on Political Parity’s blog on May 6, 2015

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