Download: Rep. Paul Ryan sparks debate on work-life balance

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At an education conference I attended, the conversation quickly turned to Rep. Paul Ryan, and how he made time with his family one of his pre-conditions for running for House speaker.

“I cannot and will not give up my family time,” Ryan, a Republican from Wisconsin, said Tuesday.

A high-profile man asserting that time with his three children, ages 10, 12, and 13, was just as important, if not more so, than becoming the most powerful person in the United States Congress? Could this be a watershed moment in the work-life balance debate?

In conversations with women at that conference Wednesday and over email with women and men around the country, it’s clear there are dramatically different opinions about just whether Ryan’s work-life balance stance will shift the debate and do anything to bring about real change for working parents.

Ryan’s position “influences the work life conversation greatly,” said Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother Media. “He is reaching for the third most powerful job in the federal government while acknowledging the importance of his role as a parent. That is a message that will be heard loud and clear.”

Owens said Ryan is setting a good example by making work-life balance a “condition of employment so to speak.” While he is, no doubt, in a “powerful position to leverage” his work-life demands, he is sending a “powerful message” about the importance fathers are putting on their commitment to their families, she said.

Janis Brett Elspas, a mother of four and founder of Mommy Blog Expert, believes Ryan could not only be blazing the trail for fathers to get more quality time with their children, but for working mothers too.

“It’s about time for family to come first before work, just the way it used to be before the Industrial Revolution started,” she said.

For family time but against paid parental leave?

Almost immediately after Ryan made clear he would not give up weekend time with his children to become speaker, it was revealed he has not supported paid parental leave. In 2009, he voted against a proposal that would have given federal workers four weeks of paid parental leave. Currently, the United States is the only industrialized nation in the world that does not require at least some paid leave for new parents.

John Furjanic, a single father of one, believes Ryan’s comments will make it much harder for him to vote against issues concerning parental leave in the future.

“I think this is a watershed moment because he is a man and he is conservative,” said Furjanic. “He would be a hypocrite to give himself family time off and not grant it to the rest of the USA.”

But, on the other side, many parents slammed Ryan for denying to others what he wants for himself and his family.

“When Rep. Ryan had the opportunity to vote for paid time for federal employees to bond with a new child, he voted no,” said Ellen Bravo, executive director of Family Values @ Work, an organization with coalitions in 21 states working on passing paid sick days and paid family leave policies. “Across the country, voters are demonstrating strong support for policies that help all families have time to spend with their loved ones. We urge Rep. Ryan to expand his gaze from his own family to those of the entire nation.”

Katharine Zaleski, co-founder and president of PowerToFly, which matches businesses with women who can work from anywhere, went even further.

“The irony is that he now appears to be a hero to working parents for saying he wants family time because often heroes speak out against the status quo, but he is one of the people who created such a harsh status quo toward working parents,” said Zaleski, a mother of one. “The irony is amazing but I applaud him because he’s opened up this debate and revealed his own hypocrisy.”

The work-life balance gender gap

Lori Day, author of “Her Next Chapter,” a book about bringing up girls to be leaders, raised the gender gap when it comes to acceptance about work-life balance.

If a woman politician had said she wanted time with her family, that most likely would have hurt her career and stereotyped her as someone who can’t balance the demands of work and family, and devote enough of her time to her job, she said. “But when dads ask for the same work-life balance women have been requesting for decades, suddenly it’s news, and it doesn’t hurt them, it humanizes them.

“Awww! Paul Ryan wants to be with his kids! What a great dad! It doesn’t work this way for women,” she said.

Children’s television host Miss Lori agrees 100%, and says that is why Ryan’s push for family time won’t have any trickle down effect for women.

“Women trying to spend time with their kids are still going to be seen as unpromotable, lacking in professionalism, a bad bet,” said the social media strategist and Babble.com contributor. “And if you think I’m wrong, I’ve got a bag of magic beans to sell you … while depositing my paycheck, which is 78 cents on the dollar of my male coworkers’ take home pay.”

Lela Davidson is author of “Faking Balance: Adventures in Work and Life,” a book that tackles the choices working parents face. She doesn’t believe Ryan’s call for his own family time will dramatically shift the work-life debate, mainly because of where he works.

“I’m not sure many Americans believe that any politician works too many hours for too little pay,” said Davidson, a mother of two who speaks nationally on the issues of women in leadership and work-life satisfaction. She said the stance by a high-powered man would have made more impact if it came from someone working in the private sector.

“Let’s face it. Congress doesn’t play by the same rules as the rest of us,” said Kelli Arena, a mother of three and executive director of the Global Center for Journalism and Democracy at Sam Houston State University.

“Businesses won’t look toward its work rules for guidance,” said Arena, an award- winning journalist. “I think we need a significant number of men from the business world to make similar requests and to support the notion of family ties. Then maybe we will see improvement.”