OP-ED: More women in Congress could be a good thing for family leave legislation

Tammy Duckworth
Los Angeles Times
Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., takes her baby Maile Pearl Bowlsbey to the Senate floor to vote Thursday. Maile, pronounced “Miley,” became the first baby brought to the floor of the chamber.

At just 10 days old, my daughter Maile made history. Last April, swaddled in blankets, nestled in my arms, she became the first child allowed onto the Senate floor — sleeping peacefully as I cast a vote, unaware of the milestone moment.

As a mother, I’ll never forget that day, and I’m endlessly grateful that my colleagues changed chamber rules to allow me and all future parents in the Senate to fulfill our responsibilities to both the Constitution and our newborns.

But I’ll also never understand how it took 229 years for the Senate to adopt a policy that would allow working moms to, well, work.

I also don’t understand why, in 2019, so many workplaces in the U.S. remain unfriendly toward working parents, and sometimes outright discriminatory.

The United States is the only developed country that doesn’t guarantee all workers paid parental leave. Lithuania, for example, offers parents a year of paid leave. And Finland sends new parents gift boxes with onesies and diapers.

Meanwhile, only a fraction of Americans can take extended paid time off to care for their newborns, and 23 percent of women must return to work within two weeks of giving birth. Over generations, we’ve accepted a working culture that lets women fall out of the workforce and lets families fall into poverty.

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Research has shown that paid leave not only brings health benefits; but it also has the potential to provide economic benefits, including saving companies money and adding billions of dollars to the economy by increasing women’s workforce participation.

Currently, there are several proposals in Congress aimed at addressing family leave, but there are predictable partisan differences. In the past, Congress has been unable to pass family leave legislation. This time there is one factor that could make it easier.

In January, 42 new congresswomen were seated. Today, 131 women now serve in the House or Senate, more than ever before. That shouldn’t make a difference, since family leave affects men as well as women, but women have historically been more supportive of family-friendly policies.

Still, a stubborn, glaring lack of representation remains: Women still make up just 24 percent of Congress, and women of color less than 9 percent. Some representation is better than none, of course, and we’ve undoubtedly made progress in recent years. But some representation is not nearly the same as full representation, equal representation or even adequate representation.

While women are far likelier than men to support family-friendly policies, research shows that for women to be able to “significantly reshape policies,” they have to reach parity with the men present. That’s not true just in legislatures, but in boardrooms and on school boards as well.

Elevating more women, not just in Congress but in every workplace, will help ensure that autoworkers in Detroit and nurses in Chicago also get to be there for those first moments with their kids — the first gurgle, that first giggle — without repercussions.

I’ll always be proud that my daughter Maile helped bring the Senate into the 21st century.

But the reality is, this country can’t afford to wait 229 more years to pass laws that look out for families beyond the Senate chamber.

It’s in the best interest of society as a whole to have children well taken care of. And that begins with ensuring that parents are able to experience those emotional, exhausting, irreplaceable first few weeks without having to worry about a pink slip.

— Tammy Duckworth is a U.S. senator from Illinois and a former Army lieutenant colonel.