Working Mother, Washington Powerhouse? Good Luck.

Family-work balance is far from the only challenge powerful women face in this town.

Neera Tanden
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Neera Tanden
July 25, 2014, 1 a.m.

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.

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