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Can Paul Ryan Have It All?

Ryan wants more time with these three kids.
Stan Honda
AFP/Getty Images
Ryan wants more time with these three kids.

Right now, Americans have a front-row seat to one of the highest-profile job negotiations they will ever see.

Paul Ryan's list of demands before becoming speaker of the House includes a couple of things that few job applicants ever have to think about: party unity and a congressional rule change. But he has one demand that many workers can sympathize with: He wants time to see his kids.

Ryan had in the past cited the speaker's 100-day-per-year travel schedule as one reason he wouldn't want the job. He says he'd want that cut down as speaker, being able to continue visiting his kids on weekends.

A few people have taken aim at Ryan over this. It's true that Ryan already has a pretty sweet gig as a congressman and that he's demanding additional flexibility while tens of millions of American workers don't even have paid leave, as Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel writes. ThinkProgress' Bryce Covert argues that it's hypocritical for Ryan to ask for flexibility at the same time that he has pushed for spending cuts to programs that assist low-income families and could make their working lives easier.

But there's another side to this: If more men did what Ryan is doing, it could drastically shrink the gender wage gap.

The idea of men being more equal partners at home is a staple of recent essays and books about whether women can "have it all." Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg talked about its importance in her book, Lean In, and Harvard researcher Claudia Goldin referenced it in an interview with me at Vox last year.

"As much as I admire Sheryl and admire everything she wrote in her book, the real advice for men is to do just the opposite, is to lean out. If all men leaned out, we would have the solution," Goldin said then.

Admittedly, the Ryan negotiation isn't about pay; the speaker's pay is set at $223,500 per year. But he would be getting a promotion, and he is negotiating for fewer responsibilities and, crucially, a more flexible schedule.

Flexible schedules are one of the major keys to closing the gender wage gap, as Goldin has found in her research. One key finding is that jobs where people are interchangeable creates more flexible schedules — and, therefore, more equitable pay.

The example she uses is pharmacists. No one walks into CVS and demands that one particular pharmacist fill her prescription; it's whoever happens to be on staff that day. But in other jobs, customers demand specific workers — people tend to have one accountant or one lawyer who handles their affairs. They're paying for someone to be there when they have problems, and that can make for hyperdemanding schedules.

The bottom line is that jobs that reward long, inflexible hours have generally tended to both pay more and go to men, who often do not take on the same family demands as their female partners. Fathers tend to do far less child care and housework than mothers, while working more hours at work.

To the extent that employers realize that even slightly more flexible schedules can work, it could help even the playing field and keep jobs from giving certain workers (often men) such outsize rewards for working long, inflexible hours. Jobs like that — like lawyers, for example — have room to change structurally to create more interchangeability and therefore flexibility.

Being speaker is very different from being a pharmacist — while Maria or Tom down at the pharmacy can fill your pill bottle, the speaker is the speaker is the speaker when it comes to doing the work of legislating. But to use (and perhaps stretch) the pharmacist metaphor a bit, you could say that Ryan is telling Republicans that he is replaceable or unnecessary in some of the typical speaker's duties. Maybe another Republican can sub in for the weekend TV news hits and fundraisers.

There are still plenty of caveats one could tack on to this argument. To be clear, Ryan is in a situation unlike anything that most workers ever experience. After all, not everyone has a crew of Congress members clamoring for them to take a specific, high-paying, high-powered job. Many workers — men or women — will never in their careers get to drive the hard "take me or leave me" bargain that Ryan is driving.

It's also entirely true that many workers making far, far less money than Ryan work long hours just to be able to support their kids — the question of being home on weekends and for school functions becomes a far lower priority in those cases.

Additionally, as several people have argued, a female member of Congress making the same announcement may have gotten a more negative reaction.

Finally, Ryan isn't going to become a hero among pay-equity advocates anytime soon. He voted against the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, for example.

But when it comes to the simple act of bargaining for more flexible work and more family time, Ryan is doing something that — if lots more men did it — could revolutionize how Americans think about work.

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Danielle Kurtzleben is a political correspondent assigned to NPR's Washington Desk. She appears on NPR shows, writes for the web, and is a regular on The NPR Politics Podcast. She is covering the 2020 presidential election, with particular focuses on on economic policy and gender politics.