Hillary Clinton’s candidacy has been historic—she is the first woman to ever run at the top of a major-party ticket, and she will likely become the first woman President to lead the United States. Her advancement is widely recognised as a signal of women’s equality, but it also begs the question of why it has taken so long for a woman to get to where Hillary is today.
To be sure, it is not only in the political world where women are a small minority—women are under-represented in top leadership positions in the business world as well. Women make up less than 5% of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and occupy only 14% of top executive positions.
And although Hillary’s candidacy may be seen as a positive sign for women’s equal representation in politics, a look at other American governmental institutions suggests otherwise. Women occupy less than 20% of seats in the U.S. Congress and less than a quarter of statewide executives are women. About half of the states in the U.S. have never elected a woman governor.
There are numerous explanations for women’s under-representation both in the political and business worlds, but one in particular rises to the surface, because it is actually immediately addressable through public policy childcare responsibilities. Even in today’s modern world, women still spend much more time than men raising children. A recent national survey I conducted found that 55% of married or partnered women say they are responsible for caring for loved ones, including children and elderly relatives, while only 39% of married partnered men say the same. An even more striking finding is that this trend holds across generations, Millennial women are just as likely as women of older generations to say they are responsible for childcare, among other domestic responsibilities.
The effect of bearing more childcare responsibilities on one’s career is not lost on women, a study conducted by the Pew Research Center found mothers with children under age 18 were about three times as likely as fathers to say that being a working parent made it harder for them to advance in their job or career (51% vs. 16%).
In order for women to raise children, they often take breaks in their career or switch to part-time, moves that are difficult to recover from even if they do eventually return full-time. There is also a more subtle, but critical, psychological effect that mothers may experience more than fathers, mothers who choose to work full-time may seem to violate gender expectations that require women to give their full attention and focus to their children. Nearly two in five Americans believe that the increase in mothers of young children working outside the home has been a bad thing for society, these attitudes undoubtedly affect women’s choices they make when it comes to negotiating work and family.
The net effect is that men gain more experience and advance quicker in their careers while women get left behind. This creates a “pipeline” problem in that there are fewer qualified, experienced women the higher one travels up the career ladder.
The next world leader?
Hillary Clinton broke through these barriers, but not without a tough fight. When Hillary was pregnant with Chelsea, the law firm she worked at didn’t offer a maternity policy, and many of her colleagues questioned whether Hillary should be allowed to take time off to care for her newborn. When Hillary eventually came back to work, the partners at her law firm made it clear they thought it was shameful for her to leave her baby at home and choose to come back to work. Even though Hillary was fortunate enough to get the time off she needed to be with Chelsea, the judgment she received from her colleagues stayed with her, and mirrors the frustration that many working moms feel, today, a quarter of all women in America have to leave their newborn and return to work within ten days of giving birth because they have no paid leave.
Women will never be able to reach parity in politics or business until our society values the work women do at home, and pays her for it. Among advanced countries, the U.S. is the only one to not mandate employers provide paid maternity leave. In fact, countries like the United Kingdom, Denmark, Albania, and Croatia are among the 31 countries whose government provide a year or more of 100% paid, job-guaranteed, parental leave, for both mothers and fathers. In these countries, women can take time off without falling behind financially, and perhaps more importantly a societal norm is created that sends the message that raising children is important, valued work. It should come as no surprise, then, that in these countries women also make up more leadership positions, in both government and business.
As a country, there is much we need to do to create a culture in which women can advance without the subtle discrimination and gender stereotypes that limit their opportunities. But we also need to spur this change by creating nationwide public policies that require employers to provide paid parental leave. We need to begin by electing leaders committed to making these changes. The chance of this happening will be much greater with Hillary in power, a candidate who will bring our country forward so that all Americans can live up to their potential.
Brittany L. Stalsburg is the author of 52 Reasons To Vote For Hillary.