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If Paul Ryan can put family first, why can't everyone?

"My name is Paul Ryan and I am a working father."

The Wisconsin Republican didn't quite say that when setting out terms for becoming the next Speaker of the House, but he might as well have. By coming clean about the demands that having three young children would have on the time he can devote to a new high-pressure/high-profile gig, Ryan inserted himself into the juggle-struggle conversation, reinforcing the fact that it impacts men as well as women.

Ryan may be the highest-profile working dad yet who says, "Yes, I need flexibility" or "No, I can't travel 24/7."

As a working mom, I say, "Welcome to the work-life conversation."

Ryan makes it clear that everything we want in a family-friendly workplace — flexibility, paid leave, supportive managers and so on —s erves all employees. He joins a small, but growing chorus of male executive leaders who have publicly acknowledged their need for family time (including Esty CEO Chad Dickerson, who took nine weeks off when he adopted his son, and Blake Mycoskie, founder and CEO of Toms Shoes, who opted to take 12 weeks of parental leave with the birth of his child.)

Work-life issues are a very real and growing challenge for men — and it's no surprise that their concerns are starting to catch up with those of women. More and more men are now standing at the intersection of rising numbers of dual-income families and increasing hands-on parenting hours. A recent survey of 2,000 men by the Working Mother Institute found that while 77 percent report having flexible work schedules, nearly 80 percent says they feel comfortable using them. These numbers are a new addition to a work-life debate that until recent years didn't bother to include men in any real way.

While working mothers continue to fight against unconscious biases that can lead to "mommy tracks," men, too, face their own work-life stigma. Take my husband. About a decade ago, when he first became a working father, Brett had a somewhat flexible schedule that allowed him to leave twice a week at 5 p.m. to pick up our new daughter at daycare. A few years in, a new boss arrived who seemed desperate to break that deal but couldn't do it outright. Instead, he lectured Brett that work was more important than family because "work supports our family." He extolled his last job, where he'd go on the road for two weeks or more, leaving his working wife to take care of the kids on her own. Seeing where this was leading, Brett kept his mouth shut and in a few months found another job where flexibility ruled. And he's still picking up our kids twice a week.


It's unlikely that Ryan stating his own need for family time will change things for working mothers and working fathers on its own. However, it adds the most important and powerful voice yet to a conversation that touches us all. Creating workplaces that support us, a complex people with competing home and work responsibilities, is what needs to happen now. Ryan's own need to be there for his family adds one more nail in the coffin of the myth of the ideal worker available anytime anywhere.

To that end, I applaud Ryan for wearing his working dad hat proudly — and hope it encourages him to remain open to other policies that making working parenthood possible for employees with no access to paid leave, flexibility or affordable childcare. Like so many parents, Ryan is looking for accommodations to make his work and home life work. As speaker, his job will be to ensure those same policies are available to all employees. Let's make the workplace a supportive place for all working parents.


Commentary by Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother Media and the Working Mother Research Institute. Follow Jennifer on Twitter @working_mother.