If we want more women in office, it’s not enough to tell them to “lean in.” We need to take down the barriers our legislatures pose to parents.
Parliament in the United Kingdom has passed legislation allowing MPs caring for new babies to nominate a colleague to vote on their behalf. This “baby leave” law, now in a trial phase, is modernizing the UK Parliament, bringing it closer to norms in ‘regular’ workplaces throughout the country. The changes should be of particular interest to parliamentarians in Canada and elsewhere, where the existing regulations in their legislatures might dissuade many people – particular women – from running for public office.
The UK baby leave law has the effect of acknowledging that a legislature is a workplace, that politicians working there can also be parents, and that we must find ways to allow MPs to take care of their families and do their jobs, while enjoying the same work-life balance opportunities and labour protections as any other citizen. It’s clear that this new law means that people who might not have considered a career in politics due to family obligations may now see it as a viable possibility.
It also means that legislatures could, potentially, include those who are not always heard – including young parents and people who care for elderly or disabled relatives. This broadened presence in the legislature is necessary for several reasons, but I will focus here on two. First, as a basic democratic principle, legislatures ought to be inclusive and reflect the composition of society; second, caregivers of all types often have policy-relevant insights that should be integrated into legislative discussions and debates. Without the voices of those who have experience doing this work, how can we know what policies and programs are missing, what works well and what does not?
Second, it’s important to remember that caregiving is highly gendered work. While contemporary Canadian society has evolved so that men are increasingly responsible for sharing in the care of their children and other family members, the bulk of caregiving activity is still performed by women. Therefore, when policies and regulations make it difficult for parents to consider a political career, this disproportionately affects women, and it means that our legislatures continue to be dominated by men.
Today, women hold an average of 24 per cent of seats in legislatures (lower houses) around the world, with substantial variation across countries. Canada ranks 59th in the world, with almost 27 per cent of its legislative seats held by women, while Rwanda leads the pack with 61 percent of seats held by women. The global average of 24 percent is nowhere near women’s share of the world’s population, and women remain under-represented in government in most countries.
Women’s presence in the workforce also exceeds 24 percent. Women have made strides much more quickly in the workplace compared to their presence in politics; recent statistics suggest that women with children make up about 66 percent of the workforce among member countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), with mothers more likely to work than women without children.
As my colleague Melanee Thomas and I argue in our recent book, working and having children is a normal part of life for both women and men around the world, and the presence of mothers in the workforce has led to important changes in the politics of work and labour, as people have demanded regulations that allow them to do their job and take care of their families. Similarly, the presence of mothers in legislatures has the potential to transform the way that legislatures work. Yet, until we make more progress in reducing barriers, we are unlikely to see more women (including mothers) take their legislative seats.
One of the most significant barriers holding women back from a political life is the cost and accessibility of childcare. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The legislature of the state of California, for example, is considering a bill that would make childcare an allowable campaign expense. You may ask why this isn’t already so. After all, how can a parent run a campaign, canvass neighbourhoods, attend town hall and other meetings, or visit with constituents without adequate childcare? For the most part, this has not been possible. Traditionally, candidates were men, many of whom had children but were not the parent responsible for childcare. Instead, these men usually had wives who took care of their children – in addition to other tasks to assist their politician-husbands.
In recent research by Melanee Thomas and Lisa Lambert, an MP told them that it is generally taken for granted that the political wife’s role is “part of the business of being an MP,” in which she takes on a large proportion of constituency work. No women MPs reported that their spouses took on such a supporting role.
In the US, childcare expenses during campaigns have been deemed allowable in some circumstances by the Federal Election Commission, but this regulation applies only at the federal level and may be determined on a case-by-case basis. Very few American states have similar formal provisions.
In Canada, caregiver costs – whether for a child or another individual for whom the candidate normally provides care – during a campaign are considered an allowable personal expense under the Canada Elections Act, and personal expenses do not count towards election-expense limits. In provincial elections, however, the regulations are not as straightforward, and provinces vary in their policies surrounding coverage for childcare during campaigns. Laws in Alberta, British Columbia, Manitoba, and Ontario classify childcare costs as eligible campaign expenses, while the election laws of other provinces include either partial coverage (Nova Scotia and Quebec) or do not explicitly mention childcare as an eligible expense.
Potential candidates (usually mothers) who are neither independently wealthy nor have a partner who takes care of the kids wind up taking themselves out of the running. Eliminating the childcare barrier makes it likely that more women will hold seats in legislatures, since we know that when women run they win.
At its core, this is an issue of basic justice: women belong in the House of Commons because they are citizens and their voices should be heard in our political institutions. The presence of women in legislatures has also been shown to lead to more legislation about issues important to women, the integration of women’s perspectives into legislative deliberations, and – recently in the Canadian context – better population health outcomes. The voices of women clearly are essential in Parliament, and we should take seriously the value of removing barriers (like childcare concerns) to make it easier for women to consider political careers.
Of course, there are many other institutional issues to think about when discussing politics and family life. The Canadian and international scholars Melanee Thomas and I published in our book pointed to a number of other hurdles that make a career in politics less feasible for mothers (and fathers). For example, Barbara Arneil notes the challenges faced by new mothers in Canada’s Parliament because of the institutional rules that make breastfeeding or bottlefeeding nearly impossible. Newborns are very portable and in theory should not pose a huge issue to mom MPs who need to attend question period, policy debates, or a vote. Similarly, research we cite by Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs notes the challenges faced by British MPs related to other caregiving responsibilities. They suggest changes in institutional rules to allow practices such as limited job-sharing that could help MPs balance their legislative and constituency work with their family responsibilities.
The lack of diversity in our institutions is increasingly in the spotlight. The #MeToo movement, the critiques of #AllMalePanels, and even the controversy over Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s retort on why it’s time for gender parity (“because it’s 2015”), indicate that #TimesUp on control over governance by and for older white men.
Furthermore, it’s not enough to tell women to simply “lean in,” and participate in politics, because the way politics works right now throws up significant barriers to their ability to actually do the job. In a ‘regular’ workplace, finding work-life balance can be less of an issue for working parents because of labour laws that support parental leaves, flex-time, and early childhood education (and, in some jurisdictions, state-funded childcare.)
Ultimately, if we want more diversity in the legislative workplace, we need to acknowledge the many barriers to women in politics, and seriously rethink the way that politics works.
The author would like to thank Katherine McLaughlin for research assistance and Melanee Thomas for feedback on an earlier draft of this article.
This article is part of the Changing the way we talk about women in politics special feature.
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