Encouraging More Female Candidacies by Subsidizing Childcare

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In many professions, the days of extreme gender imbalances may finally be coming to an end. Women make up more than half of workers under age 25 with bachelor’s degrees, almost half of law and medical students, and are well represented in many professions. The picture is not so encouraging when it comes to elective office, however: according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, women make up only 18 percent of Congress and 24 percent of state legislatures.

What might explain women’s underrepresentation in American government? Commentators point to the unfair double standards to which female candidates are held  and the petty focus on the physical appearance of female candidates as impediments to electing women. While these may be important factors, we should not overlook the challenges to work-life balance that a career in politics entails. Politicians, especially when campaigning, regularly put in 12-hour days and often spend weeks at a time on the road. While this schedule is certainly trying for all families, working-class households are particularly likely to feel the brunt of these challenges. When a family’s survival depends on the income of both parents, an extended, unpaid run for even a city council seat may be out of the question. And because women still end up performing a majority of housework and childcare activities even when they work full time, we need to consider the possibility that any number of women who want to run for office cannot due to family responsibilities.

In order to better represent and draw upon the talents and passions of their entire populations, local, state, national governments should offer subsidized childcare to politicians and political candidates who do not have stay-at-home spouses.  In 2009, to address the needs of Alaska’s state legislators with small children, the Legislative Council approved a deal to build a childcare center next door to the Capitol in Juneau, a city with a growing shortage of childcare. Although unsubsidized, the childcare center has eased the burden on Alaskan legislators with small children traveling from across the large state.

Other states and municipalities should build on Alaska’s example. Although politicians would continue to face work-life balance challenges even with such benefits in place, subsidized childcare for politicians would provide men and women with greater freedom to put in the time required to run for and serve in public office.

Indeed, evidence increasingly suggests that fewer young women think about running for office than would be the case if they did not have to consider balancing family and work. In a survey of Yale University undergraduates, I found that students who wanted to work part-time after having children were 5 percentage points less interested in running for Congress than other students. Female students were twice as likely to want to work part-time after having children than male students were. Considering that average undergraduates have little interest in running for public office in the first place, having work-life balance concerns considerably decreases their interest in political careers, even among students at elite schools.

Without external support, then, some women, especially working-class women, may be unable—not just unwilling—to run for office. And it is more often than not this initial decision to run that determines who serves. Women fare just as well as men in elections, and thus the current gender imbalance in elective office is largely attributable to fewer women entering the political arena to begin with. Given the substantial financial and work-life balance pressures of a political career, and the lack of existing support for politicians, it is no surprise that so few women decide to run.

To be sure, subsidized childcare for politicians would be a tough political sell. The American public is fed up with the perks of politicians in Washington, and subsidized childcare may seem like one more example of taxpayer dollars going to fund big government excess. Such a program would be a particularly tough sell to conservatives: taxpayer-funded daycare for politicians seems especially inimical to the Right’s mantra of smaller government and bootstrapping one’s way up.

But such a program isn’t about politicians rewarding themselves with more public benefits. By allowing parents from all walks of life to run for office, subsidized childcare for politicians and candidates has the potential to both increase the number of women in politics and diversify the candidate pool for all levels of public office. Until we recognize the special set of challenges that working women face when choosing a career in politics, we can expect that women will be continue to be underrepresented in government.

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