There's no getting around it: Women are consistently underrepresented in elective offices. Although we're making progress, as of 2017 the number of members of U.S. Congress who are women is still only 20 percent; what's more, women hold less than 25 percent of the statewide elective and state legislative seats. To rectify this imbalance, more women than ever before are seeking political office — but those with children at home may face an even steeper climb up Capital Hill, especially compared to their male counterparts. A new study conducted by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation found that voters are less trusting of mothers than they are of fathers — confirming yet again a depressing double standard we've already known women face at work for ages. The motherhood penalty is real, and it really, really sucks.
Concern over balancing work and family life is nothing new; however, despite the strides that feminism has made both historically and recently, the study notes that traditional gender roles remain a powerful influencer in voters' decision making processes. "Many people still assume motherhood is a central role for women," the study authors explain. "Many see a critical and unique role for a mother which cannot be replicated by anyone else, even a child’s father." The study found that voters were most concerned with how married and single mothers of young children would balance the demands of their constituents with their family life, but had far fewer concerns when it came to a male candidate with children, even if he had a working spouse.
Conducted before the 2016 presidential election, the study pulled participants from an online survey of 1,000 potential voters, and numerous focus groups across five cities. The voters were asked to review profiles in the form of newspaper clippings of politically-neutral fictional candidates running for governor. Among these candidates were “married mothers of young children, single mothers, unmarried women without children, lesbian couples with children, divorced women, and married fathers with young children,” the New York Times notes. Voters then were exposed to critiques of each candidate, specifically focussing on how said candidate would manage the demands of office and home life. To quell voter doubts, the made-up candidates released responses to the critiques, but only the fathers seemed to successfully reassure the voters, while the most concerns lingered for the mother with young children.
First-hand accounts confirm these findings, notes the Times. While children are seen as a "political asset" for a man, women, burdened with the societal mantel of primary caregiver and nurturer, do not glean the same benefits. “Being with children was seen as being distracted from doing your job," Jane Swift, former lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, told the New York Times. "I found that part of my challenge was that whenever folks started to think about my children, it just took all the oxygen out of the room. Nobody knew all the work I was doing on educational reform or the work I did to improve the lives of foster children.”
Women must grapple with keeping their public and private lives well-defined but separate, at the risk of alienating constituents and causing relatability issues. The study agreed that it was best for mothers running for office to confidently address criticism and concern about their family life head-on and then move the discussion to policy. It is a delicate tight-rope act that women have had to perform since entering the workforce — and apaprently it's not going away any time soon.