‘Having it all’ is not a women's issue

We're now expected to work longer hours than ever, and mothers are simply expected to make the choice between work and their children.
  • @ruthwhippman

Here are some examples of questions that my husband has never been asked.

“Will you keep on working after the baby is born?” “Will you be going part time?” “Do your earnings cover the childcare?” and “you must feel guilty being away from your son so much?” (this last in the shady coercion zone between question and instruction.)

The concurrently magical and mind-numbing task of shepherding a child from infancy to adulthood without significant emotional harm, and with a clean PE kit, usually involves, at least to some extent, two parents.  Yet the public mud-slinging and private soul-searching that surround the act of balancing of work and family is almost exclusively seen as a ‘women’s issue.’

Even without the snidey asides of the tabloid press, the language we use to discuss the subject packs a heavily gendered punch.  The poisonously different expectations of male and female parents are neatly implicit in the respective definitions of the verbs ‘to mother’ and ‘to father’ a child.  After maternity leave, women become ‘working mothers’ or ‘career women’ (there is no such thing as a working father or a career man.)  Mothers ‘selfishly’ aspire to ‘have it all’ and when they realise this is ‘impossible’ (despite the fact that fathers seem to manage it) then they ‘juggle.’  (Men, who are not either performance artists or deeply tedious, don’t juggle, they just live their lives.) Women take the hit for what goes on with the kids, even when they are not there.  Whether the main caregiver in a family is mother, father, swiss au-pair or CBeebies, it is generally acknowledged that the mother will be held mostly responsible for whatever happens as a result. 

Whether by choice or compulsion (and more on that later), women pay a heavy price for the deeply held expectation that they are the primary carer even in absentia.  Last week, The AAT released a survey of over 2000 mothers who left their jobs to start a family, which suggests that when these women re-entered the workforce, around 70% took a job for which they believed they were overqualified. 

In addition, the women surveyed took an average pay cut of close to £10,000 from what they were earning before having their first child.  The figure is a scary one, and with its implications of reduced savings and pension contributions is predictive of an old age spent in poverty for many women, not to mention the relationship and social ramifications of being so financially dependent on men.

But the study got little press attention, perhaps because it fell into the trap of so many contributions to this debate.  On closer inspection, the fearsome £10,000 figure masked a vast range of life circumstances- not just women maliciously passed over in favour of male colleagues or those paid less for identical work, but also voluntary part timers and eager downshifters.  Hence the research was easily dismissed.  It wouldn’t be the first time that debates over equal pay and childcare responsibilities have stalled on this point. “She chose it!” they declare, (in a tone only marginally less misogynistic than the one used to proclaim that “she asked for it!” in scarier circumstances.)  Move along, nothing to see here.

Like many modern manifestations of sexism, this is a tricky one to disentangle.  On one level, the notion of free choice for women on matters of work and childcare is reasonable, but that isn’t the whole story. 

There are three major players involved in the high wire act of balancing work and family- mothers, fathers and employers, yet as it stands, mothers are the only party out of the trio genuinely taking a significant financial or emotional hit for its consequences.   The social deck is stacked heavily in favour of women rather than men being the ones to have to make these tough choices and the realities of the modern workplace often mean that the options they are offered constitute more of a Sophie’s choice than a real one.  Either a) relinquish the pay and status you have worked for years to accrue, or b) never see your children again.

One of the key problems with dismissing the matter of equal pay for women after childbearing as a simple matter of personal choice, is that it lets employers off scot-free.  Yet in many ways, it is employers who should take the lion’s share of the responsibility for why this whole issue is so thorny.  In recent years, businesses’ demands of their workers have become more and more unreasonable and detrimental to family life.  

Weekend and evening work is no longer an exceptional response to a crisis, but a routine expectation of employees of all ranks.  Just ten years ago, office workers would have a reasonable expectation of being home for dinner most nights.  Now this is offered as a generous and rare exception.

The TUC estimates that British workers ‘donate’ over two billion hours of unpaid overtime to their bosses every year and as a consequence, the phrase ‘nine to five-er’ is no longer a description of an ordinary shift pattern but a scathing insult to an uncommitted employee.  Often sold to workers as an economic necessity in tough times, this is actually a cultural trend that long predates the recession.  It’s beneficiaries are not just struggling firms, but also hugely profitable companies.  Somehow, as a workforce we have reached a tacit agreement that we would rather hurt our own family lives than our employers’ bottom line.  

Very few people want to work like this, and in large part, crises notwithstanding, it is not actually necessary to get the job done, but as much a result of a culture of presenteeism and a failure on employers’ parts to give serious thought to how else the workplace might be organised. This is a model of working life strongly predicated on the notion that someone else is at home looking after the kids.  And given the way that the deck is rigged, that someone is almost invariably a woman.

From an employer’s point of view, this issue is worth addressing if only to stop the loss of talented and qualified female employees in whom the company has invested money and time to train.  But the issue runs deeper than that.  For anyone who believes that there is indeed such a thing as society, and that children are its collective responsibility, this debate can no longer be dismissed as a ‘women’s issue’ or a mere matter of personal choice. Fathers and employers need to step up, engage with the issue and shoulder some of this burden, or society will be much the poorer.