Like many other 30-something women, I've started reading the latest treaty for the working gal, Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In. I'm now among the ranks of those who admire Sandberg's ability to leave the office on time and her gutsiness in contributing to a much-needed discussion on how North American's can better balance work and life so both men and women are better equipped to take on leadership roles if they want to.
One area where this discussion is sorely needed is politics, an arena that Sandberg -- an advisor to former US Treasury Secretary Larry Summers -- largely ignores in her book. This is a pity, as it will be increasingly difficult to attract good people to the profession if we can't offer some semblance of work-life balance.
My colleague Kendall Anderson, a mother of young children and an outsider to politics, was baffled to learn, while writing a report on Parliament, on how tough a life it is for people with kids. To quote her:
When we were writing "Lost in Translation or Just Lost?" I realized that the House sat until 6:30 or 7:00 p.m. Like many parents, I'm obsessed with making sure I have enough quality time with my kids every day -- before they go to bed at 7:30. My first thought on seeing the daily schedule was: "What about the family dinner? What about story hour?" (For those not parenting in recent years, the "family dinner" has recently been touted as the cure -- all to any problems with your children from asthma to drug addiction.)
Another fact that really hit home for me: MPs are only in Ottawa half the year, so they have to decide whether to leave their family at home in the riding for half the year, or drag them to Ottawa and leave them alone in Ottawa half the year while they visit the riding. And since there are limits to how much MPs can bring their families back and forth -- either formal limits or limits based on Canadians' perceptions of the supposed "perks" of being an MP -- most MPs opt to leave their partners and kids at home. All I could think about was the poor partner at home, enduring the "witching hour" alone -- 135 days of the year. Not to mention the guilt the MP mom or dad would have about being away so much.
MPs are well aware of this problem. In fact, one I spoke to said the best time to go into politics is when your kids are grown up and don't need you anymore.
While that may very well be true, politics, to be relevant and responsive to the public, should ideally be designed to facilitate the participation of a diverse set of citizens. In a series of exit interviews some colleagues and I did with 65 former MPs, work-life balance did come up, and in a paper I co-wrote with Royce Koop and James Farney, here are a few of the solutions they offered up:
1. Move to shorter, more intense parliamentary sessions. This would lessen the travel demands and allow MPs to go home for longer weekends. Alternatively, change regular sitting hours from 9 to 5, and eliminate evening sitting hours except in emergencies. This would allow them to go home for dinner -- or connect with their families and friends online, or even interact with a fellow MP outside the pressures of the House.
2. Offer reliable childcare. Nearby and inexpensive childcare would help encourage younger MPs to run for office, especially women. Since we're only at 23% women in the House, we are grossly underrepresenting our population.
3. Adjust constituent expectations. We constituents need to realize that MPs are spread pretty thin. An MP's staff should be seen as a representative of the MP, not the MP shirking his/her responsibilities. Seeing an MP in the flesh -- though it'll help them come election time -- should not be the all-important goal. The authors advise that MPs need more staff support, and we all need a smoother running bureaucracy to "allow the MP to spend more time focused on substantive representation rather than acting as a guide through our bureaucracy."
While no one enters politics for the lifestyle, some of the above might help aspiring politicians "lean in" just a little more.