Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway caused a stir by openly airing what’s more often privately discussed among women in Washington when she said the White House isn’t a place for mothers to work.
It’s a shame that she posed the dilemma as a question for men. “The question isn’t, `Would you take the job?’” Conway said last week at Politico’s Women Rule Summit. “The question is, `Would you want your wife to? Would you want the mother of your children do that?’ You really see their entire visage change. It’s like, oh no, they wouldn’t want their wife to take that job.”
Putting aside that fathers should balance parenting duties as seriously as their wives, the fact is many accomplished working mothers have come to the same conclusion about White House opportunities as Conway has, with good reason. While women have become more prominent on presidential staff, it’s often those without children who achieve the top title of assistant to the president, leaving a Moms’ Glass Ceiling in the White House.
The question for Donald Trump and other future presidents is just how much they value advice from talented women who also have a family or desire one. Because so far that has been a challenge. The president and the public would be well served to have more working moms advising at the top echelons of government in this country, where nearly 70 percent of women with children under 18 are in the workforce.
President Barack Obama deserves credit for making progress in bringing on working mothers, even recruiting communications director Jen Psaki while she was pregnant. He also instituted paid parental leave for White House staff. For the next White House, announcements of senior Trump aides so far have been predominantly male.
And despite Obama’s efforts to recruit some working mothers, the vast majority of women who have served as assistants to the president have not had minor children at home. I combed through the White House senior staff list in 2014 looking for exceptions, struck by the irony that Obama was hosting a summit on working families with so few working mothers among his own most senior staff. I found many dads of minor children serving as assistants to the president, but precious few mothers, with National Security Advisor Susan Rice being one prominent exception.
I had my own difficulty navigating parenting while a White House reporter for The Associated Press, a position I held both before I had children and after my second son was born. My first day back on the beat in 2012, I discovered my only place to pump was sitting on a lidless toilet in the bathroom, with no where to place my equipment but the floor between the toilet paper scraps and wet spots. Yet Obama’s signature health care legislation required that workplaces provide space to pump other than a restroom. When I pointed that out to presidential aides, I was told since I didn’t work for the White House there was no obligation for them to provide a lactation space – which seemed a violation of the spirit of the law, if not the letter. I couldn’t cover the White House if I had to travel back to the AP bureau’s lactation room every two hours.
I decided to wean my son, then 9 months old, to be able to do the job. When another nursing mom arrived on the beat soon after, she doggedly pushed for a pumping space until a seldom used radio booth was turned into a lactation room.
It’s just one example of how small changes can be made to transform the White House into an easier workplace for moms, despite its special demands. And although pumping rooms and paid leave policies are great for moms of infants, there need to be more changes to support parents for the long-term. For instance, a regularly scheduled 5:30 p.m. senior staff meeting with the president makes it nearly impossible for parents to pick up young children from daycare that closes at 6 p.m. And while other federal agencies have on-site child care, there’s no such option for White House aides. How about a day care in a neighboring federal building, which would not only be a practical help but send a huge message that parents are valued on the presidential staff?
Whatever personal choice Conway makes about White House employment deserves respect. However, Trump and other future presidents could make it clear for other working mothers who want to serve that their contributions are vital. That means making family friendly policies held up by both candidates during the campaign, like child care and paid parental leave, not just political buzzwords but a concrete reality in the nation’s most prominent of workplaces.