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Who says men have it right? Work-life balance and women

October 27, 2015

Yesterday, Laurie Penny of the New Statesman released a piece about women in the workplace, and how the idea that they can “have it all” – that is to say, children and a high power job – is putting pressure on women to spend too much time working, both in the office and out of it. Life, she says, is not for women how it is for men – it’s not travelling or reading books. It’s rearing children.

That’s an important point with merit, but separate to the rest of the article. How women spend “free time” or how we define a “work-life balance” for women is a different debate to how women perceive the world of work in relation to children. What about women’s’ psychology? Popular perception has it that women are worriers. Gross generalisations aside, let’s say that it’s partially true that for some reason, women voluntarily take responsibilities onto their shoulders which they are not personally required to take; they often choose to provide a large amount of practical care to friends and family members who are sick or in need. They choose to offer favours above the call of duty. They choose to lose out, so that others might benefit.

Purely from my own observations, I don’t see that level of concern and tenderness among my more masculine-gendered friends. When men worry about their peers, we say they are nice. When they take their responsibilities seriously, we say they are good. When women do the same, we say they are women. I don’t know where the these ideas come from. As always, it could be that the fact makes the perception or the perception makes the fact; or both, around in a circle of exaggeration, exacerbation and self-fulfilling prophecy.

If women do take on responsibility they need not, the point of whether women should try to “have it all” is moot. The sad fact of the matter is that many of them will, and will feel guilty if they don’t. They’ll continue to perform to the best of their ability for prior engagements, while taking on an increasing number of new tasks. The guilt of failing in one’s duty exists for both sexes, but we are led to believe that it is women who feel the most guilt and obligation towards family commitments.

Those who analyse human and non-human animal behaviour might tell you that actually, that’s a part of being female, thus is difficult to overcome. Whether you agree with that or think that all gender differences are constructed, arbitrary and socially enforced, there’s no getting around the fact that women in their droves do seem to take on a lot of responsibility. If it’s social pressure causing it, the next question you have to answer is: where is that social pressure coming from?

When Laurie Penny says that women must embrace their right to say “I’d prefer not to” do X, Y and Z, she overlooks the fact that many women do not prefer not to; the reason that so much literature comes out about women “having it all” is because everyone prefers the idea of having everything to the idea of having no choice. Women do not have a choice, in the same way that men do; if there’s one thing we can be fairly certain of, it’s that for whatever reason the possibility of having children or not having them tends to govern women’s’ lives more than men’s’. Again, it may be biological, or socially enforced.

It complicates the whole issue of women in work from the very beginning, because in a world of choice, the possibility of childrearing brings great uncertainty. Many a woman has entered the world of work at a sprightly 22 thinking she will never want children, thus she need not worry about how it will impact on her career, yet changed her mind before the age of 35. By that time, your hand is dealt; you have no option but to choose between the career and the children to some extent, because either way your life will never be the same again.

If you choose not to have children, you will have to live with regrets about having not done it, and if you choose to have them, most likely your working life as you know it is over. Inevitably, in careers that require a huge amount of investment, a child will still have to take precedence and that will damage the work. Men and women alike all know this before starting careers. Unfortunately, the careful career plan goes out the window when all of a sudden you find you do want children after all. When looking for neat solutions to this problem, the only solution anyone is satisfied with is: “Of course you can do both! You can do whatever you like!”

As untrue as this is, most would prefer to try anyway. I think it’s important to consider the reason. I imagine that those who enter high power careers in the first place are very ambitious, perhaps workaholics. The idea of giving up without a jolly good fight isn’t going to appeal to those people. I observe that women are growing to match men in terms of competitiveness and are becoming more assertive about their needs.

It sounds like a good thing, but a basic mistake is being made here; judging women by the yardstick of male achievement suggests that men have it right. Men have it right when they spend too little time with their kids, for the sake of advancing their career. Men have it right to be so ambitious, that they lose sight of the point of all the work – in part, to earn money to provide for the family. So many men regret not having been there for their children because they were at work – and they didn’t have to be.

They had the choice to work less hard and spend more time at home, and hopefully unwind with a book now and then. These men couldn’t “have it all” and they always knew this at the back of their minds. They made a choice, and they made what turned out to be the wrong choice for them. It is possible that women (or perhaps merely younger generations) are more conscious of the inevitability of dissatisfaction when making this choice, and will do whatever they can to avoid it.

Rather than talk about women and what women are expected to do, we could discuss work culture. So many industries are cut-throat and the promotion goes to the one so dedicated, you’d think they sleep under the office desk. We should seriously examine what this work culture is doing to men and women in the world of work. Instead of allowing ourselves to fall into the trap of thinking that a lack of women in positions of power means that women are falling short of the mark, we could consider that men are overworking the office, at the expense of other parts of life including family. Perhaps women who leave the ambitious career behind to have babies are the winners after all.

If we acknowledge this, we also acknowledge by extension that domestic labour isn’t being divvied up equally – for every man who overworks the office, he leaves his spouse to take on the brunt of the caring responsibilities. The only other alternative is that neither parent is there. In order for women to have a career, have relaxation time, have a family and not be overworked, their spouses have to operate under much the same system as them. In other words, everybody has to do less of everything, in order to have time to do everything that needs doing.

None of these are new ideas, but ones we should draw to mind the next time we talk about women’s work-life balance, or the glass ceiling, or gender inequality in the workplace. It’s unlikely that intentional sexism plays anything like as big a part as burdensome personal responsibility, and it’s equally unlikely that ingrained personal responsibility can be switched off by the advice that we all need to relax more. It needs to be known, known with certainty by employers and employees alike that if men and women can’t both relax their sense of responsibility to the workplace, everyone loses.

Overall, I think LP and I agree on the conclusion; women don’t need to “have it all”. They need to have some of everything. If men and women both have some of everything, no one has to force themselves down one path or attempt to do everything at maximum efficiency all at once. Our problem is we’re obsessed with the career ladder, as if there’s an agreed top rung.

A career goes on as long as it’s wanted and convenient. There can be no shame in slowing down or stopping, in admitting that we’re human and have multiple needs. If work efficiency suffers as a result, we must be prepared as a society to accept it. It’s why you’re not allowed to ask a female potential employee if she plans to have children; punishing someone for daring to have a life outside of work is backwards. Now all we need to do is stop punishing ourselves for it.


From → Gender Politics

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