Progressives have been quick to call Rep. Paul Ryan a “hypocrite” for demanding “family time” as a condition of running for the speakership. While declaring that he “cannot and will not” give up time with his family, Ryan has repeatedly opposed paid leave and other workplace protections.
But what should irk progressives more than Ryan’s lamentable legislative record is that – once again – it’s taken a man to legitimize the issue of work-life balance. Had a woman made the same demand as Ryan – for example, if Republican Conference Chairman Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers had expressed a similar concern – she would have been declared immediately unfit for the job.
Moreover, it’s unlikely that any woman would have the courage to make such a demand in the first place because she knows what the answer would be: an unequivocal “no.”
As a consequence, many women faced with the lack of flexibility at work simply drop out. In a 2011 survey of “career-oriented” stay-at-home moms by the Working Mother Research Institute, women cited the lack of workplace flexibility, as well as economic concerns such as the cost of childcare, as their principal reasons for leaving the workforce. Just 20 percent cited a “long-standing desire to be a stay-at-home mom.” And according to the 2015 EY Global Generations survey, 1 in 10 U.S. workers – and 1 in 6 millennial workers – said they have suffered some sort of penalty, such as lower pay or fewer promotional opportunities, as a result of opting for a more flexible work schedule.
Ryan is extraordinarily fortunate to have the luxury of negotiating the terms of his job. What’s also remarkable is that he has done so largely without stigma. No one has suggested, for example, that Ryan take a pay cut for working fewer hours or that he be shunted into lower-profile committees. No one has questioned Ryan’s commitment to the job of speaker. Yet penalties like these are all too common a fate for women on the “mommy track,” whose decisions over family and career too often spark more contempt than admiration.
Ryan’s high-profile demand for “family time” could and should change the national conversation over work and family. But it’s a pity that the trade-offs women have made for decades can’t be validated without the notice of men.