In late 2006, my old boss Hillary Clinton started talking to me about the ideas that would fuel her presidential campaign. I had advised Hillary on policy when she was first lady, Senate candidate, and senator, so it seemed natural that I’d be part of her presidential run. Natural to everyone but me, that is. At the time I had two young children, ages 1 and 4; advising a presidential campaign while caring for them seemed a gargantuan task.
Neera Tanden is the president of the Center for American Progress. (Ralph Alswang)I ached over the decision but ultimately said yes. Unlike most women, I was fortunate in two crucial ways: I had a husband who was truly a co-parent, and I had a boss who would give me the flexibility to do my work while still upholding my responsibilities as a mom. One memorable day, Hillary even flipped her schedule to ensure that I could attend my daughter’s pre-K graduation and still run her debate prep. She never gave me less work or responsibility — believe me! — just the ability to do it on a schedule that let me get home for dinner (but not cook it) most nights and allowed me to work through the wee hours of the morning at home. I didn’t get much sleep, but it worked.
Today I’m one of just a handful of women running major Washington institutions. But I’m fully aware that I would not be heading the Center for American Progress, as a mother of two, without being so lucky in my husband and former boss. I had the chance to step up in my career when my kids were young, not step back. That’s impossible for most women in the U.S.
Because working women still shoulder the lion’s share of caregiving at home, inadequate public policies mean that far too many professional women leave the workforce during the prime of their careers to bond with a new baby or care for a sick parent. When they return to work, they are forever behind their peers, both in the leadership pack and in earning potential.
The mores of high-pressure jobs in Washington — which emphasize long hours and put a premium on face time with the higher-ups — convince a lot of women that they can’t succeed at the highest level and be good moms. But mores are a function of culture, and we can shape the culture. That’s why, at CAP, we expect excellent work, but if a parent has to leave the office to take a child to the doctor, nobody sweats it.
Of course, family/work balance is far from the only challenge powerful women face in this town. And if you’re a woman of color, well, watch out. I vividly remember one meeting with business leaders and academics early in Hillary’s presidential campaign; at the time I was in my late 30s and rising through the ranks. I had called the meeting, and was doing most of the talking. But many of the men around the table aimed their questions right past me, to my white, male deputy. I could also see them looking to him for confirmation of what I was saying.
At first I thought it was because I was young. But then I realized my deputy looked half my age. Did they not see me as a leader because I was a woman? Because I was Indian? Because I was short? Because I was all three? I will never know. But I do know they didn’t, or couldn’t, see me as an authority figure.
What holds back women in Washington is not so much that they lack the proverbial “seat at the table”; after all, I wasn’t just sitting at the table in that meeting, it was my table. It’s not how they negotiate their salaries, either, or when they choose to have children, or whether they “lean in” enough; Washington has no shortage of brilliant, assertive young women. They are held back by a culture that often marginalizes their voices, by a society that undervalues their work, and by public policy that fails to support and empower them. You shouldn’t have to win the boss lottery, or the husband lottery, to be able to thrive professionally while raising your children. But that’s still the reality for too many.
Neera Tanden is the president of the Center for American Progress.