“Gender-Neutral” Policies are Often Not What They Seem

Amanda Fuchs Miller | Apr 1, 2020

We Should Put Policies in Place to Help Elect More Women

Last week, The Atlantic published an article urging policymakers not to adopt a gender-neutral approach to the Covid-19 pandemic because, while the health impacts may be putting both men and women’s health and lives in danger, the economic consequences of unpaid caring labor will see more burden put on women, due to the current structure of the workforce.

Thinking about the impact on women due to the role many of them are being forced to play made me think of some of the aspects of running for office or holding office that put up an additional barrier for women candidates – even when we think of the policies in place as gender-neutral.

There have been some recent steps to address these.

In May of last year, the Federal Election Commission ruled that federal candidates can use campaign funds to pay for child care costs that result from time spent running for office.  Campaign funds cannot be used for “personal use.”  So, the question was whether a female candidate – who previously cared for her children full time – could use campaign funds to pay a babysitter who is hired to watch her young children while she is out on the campaign trail?  Any of us who have children would come to a quick “of course that is not personal use of funds” and the FEC agreed.

Earlier this year. M.M. LaFleur – a women’s clothing company – launched “Ready To Run For Office,” a service that loans complimentary clothes to women running for public office on the federal, state, or local level.  (The CEO is personally donating clothing to candidates who have reached out, in order to comply with FEC rules.)  Whether we want to admit it or not, there still exists a double standard – we didn’t see a lot of articles about Joe Biden or Pete Buttegeig and their dark blue suits and red ties, but the women candidates’ outfits were still often mentioned in news stories about their performance in the presidential debates.

It was in 1986, the year the first Democratic woman was elected to the U.S. Senate in her own right, that Senator Mikulski (D-MD) got a rule change to allow women to wear pants on the Senate floor.  It took “the Year of the Woman” in 1992 for a women’s restroom to be constructed off the Senate floor.  It was 27 years later, in 2019, after Senator Duckworth (D-IL) had a baby, that a rule change was passed to allow new parents to bring their infants onto the Senate floor and breastfeed them as needed.  Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), the ranking member of the Senate Rules Committee, said, “We have to be an example for the rest of the country and that’s why we’re doing this, in addition to – we’d like more women in the Senate.”

In this unique and scary time facing the nation, we have seen our women elected officials standing up to demand things like Paid Family and Medical Leave – a “gender neutral policy” but one that will have a disproportionate impact on women who are often in caregiving roles.  While women make up nearly half of the nation’s workforce, 40% of mothers working outside the home say they take time off to stay home when their kids are sick, compared to 10% of fathers who work outside the home.

If we want to have more women in office, we need to ensure that “gender-neutral” policies are updated to eliminate barriers for women to serve as officeholders.  And, only once we do that, will all the women in our country be able to benefit from policies that help them be successful in the varied roles they fulfill in our society.

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