The most family-unfriendly workplace in America

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Over the past few decades, as more women have joined the workforce, the American workplace has very slowly begun to become more family friendly. More and more companies offer paid family leave, and many try to offset the costs of child care by offering reimbursements and on-site day care.

But the only institution constitutionally created to reflect our national values Congress is arguably the least family friendly institution in the country. The same people who set policy for millions of families in America serve in a job that literally splits families apart. If Congress had more family friendly rules, more women would run for office. And if more women were elected, our laws would be more conducive to the basic struggles most families face housing, education, health and transportation.

Members of Congress do not incur much sympathy these days, but the truth is they lead a lousy lifestyle. Lawmakers spend most of their weeks away from their families, working long hours; when they return home often after long commutes, they spend time with constituents.

I’ve seen this up close. I am the daughter of two former members of Congress and have worked as a staff member in the Senate and White House. Even though I was in my 20s when both my parents were elected, I’ve seen how stressful the life of a lawmaker can be for them and their families. That’s why, when I considered running for office myself a few years ago, I decided the trade-off between being an active parent and representing my community in Congress wasn’t worth it.

Two recent events threw a spotlight on the issue of how Congress treats families: Tammy Duckworth became the first U.S. senator in office to give birth, while Speaker Paul Ryan announced he’ll give up his post because he’s tired of being “a weekend dad.” As convenient as Ryan’s decision may be, he nevertheless gave voice to the Faustian bargain of missing out on parenthood for the honor of serving in Congress. As inconvenient — but wonderful and brave — as Duckworth’s choice is likely to be, she will face real challenges. Congress, is notoriously slow to modernize its internal practices: It has yet to have an official family leave policy and it wasn’t until 2011 that female members had their own restroom off the floor of the House.

Being a member of Congress may seem like a glamorous job. Congress spends roughly 145days a year in session; it’s not uncommon for lawmakers to leave for the weekend on Thursday afternoon. But that schedule masks the real burdens of the job. The travel is brutal, and the schedule keeps member of Congress away from family a majority of days during each week for most of the year. For those with young families, that means forever forgoing many of fleeting joys of being present as your child learns to talk, read, swim, build Legos and paper airplanes; the chance to attend not just soccer games but also practices; and hilarious bedtime conversations about the speed of cheetahs, budding friendships at school and poignantly innocent moral questions.

As former Vice President Joe Biden said in explaining his daily rail commutes home to Delaware from D.C, “I came to realize that a child can hold an important thought, something they want to say to their mom and dad, maybe 12 or 14 hours, and then it’s gone. And when it’s gone, it’s gone.”

The punishment Congress inflicts on families largely explains why it remains an overwhelmingly male institution. Only 20 percent of members are women. (Yes, it is 2018.) And it’s an institution built for those for whom raising children is no longer a reality, if it ever was: Currently, the average age in the House is 57.8 and in the Senate it’s 61.8.

Research by American University professor Jennifer Lawless helps demonstrate that men still rule in national public office. She reports that 90 nations now surpass the U.S. in the percentage of women in the national legislature. Of the 83 members elected for the first time to Congress in 2014, 64 are male and 19 are female. According to Lawless, half of those men, and only one woman, had children still at home – the rest either went for the job because they don’t have children or their offspring are grown.

On average, women enter politics at any level four years later than men do, according to Rutgers University Center for Women in Politics, at the age of 51 versus 47. The research at Rutgers also found that female state legislators are significantly more likely than their male colleagues to say that their decision to run for office was influenced by their children being “old enough.” If women do pursue an office, it is more likely at the local level in jobs that don’t require travel. Men are about twice as likely to express interest in a federal position. I’m living proof of that: Instead of seeking a House seat, I ran and now serve on the school board.

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