A million women are reading thisBy The Hoopla | Jun 28, 12 09:41 AM
There's fierce debate in the US going on about whether women can 'have it all'. It's a debate we in Australia should be having too.
It’s the debate a million American women are slugging out on Twitter, Facebook, TV and through commentary pages… and one we in Australia should be having too.
Can women “have it all”? Is life/work balance an almighty myth?
The first incendiary device was hurled by Princeton University professor, Anne-Marie Slaughter in a cover story in The Atlantic.
“It is time, “Slaughter said, “for us to acknowledge the conflict between personal and professional life, for parents to admit plainly when they are leaving work to pick up their kids, and for workplaces to use technology to bring their schedules into the twenty-first century.
“It’s time for women to stop blaming themselves when they can’t do “it all”.
At the moment of writing this, her article has 137,000 Facebook likes and a million women have logged on to read it.
It’s a long piece, so to précis: Slaughter, as the first woman director of policy planning at the US State Department, wrote that her 14-year-old son was in trouble.
“I found myself in New York, at the United Nations’ annual assemblage of every foreign minister and head of state in the world. On a Wednesday evening, President and Mrs Obama hosted a glamorous reception at the American Museum of Natural History.
“I sipped champagne, greeted foreign dignitaries, and mingled. But I could not stop thinking about my 14-year-old son, who had started eighth grade three weeks earlier and was already resuming what had become his pattern of skipping homework, disrupting classes, failing math, and tuning out any adult who tried to reach him.
“When this is over, I’m going to write an op-ed titled ‘Women Can’t Have It All’, ” she said to a colleague.
“She was horrified,” wrote Slaughter. “You can’t write that,” she (her colleague) said. “You, of all people.” What she meant was that such a statement, coming from a high-profile career woman – a role model – would be a terrible signal to younger generations of women.”
Slaughter did leave her job and in a subsequent public lecture to a group of 20-something women at Oxford found herself pouring her heart out:
“What poured out of me was a set of very frank reflections on how unexpectedly hard it was to do the kind of job I wanted to do as a high government official and be the kind of parent I wanted to be, at a demanding time for my children (even though my husband, an academic, was willing to take on the lion’s share of parenting for the two years I was in Washington).
“I concluded by saying that my time in office had convinced me that further government service would be very unlikely while my sons were still at home.”
The young women in attendance thanked her for her frankness, and, struck by their responses, she started to wonder.
She concluded that her peers were clinging to a “feminist credo” and, even as one by one, they were falling over with exhaustion and stress, were determined “not to drop the flag for the next generation”.
It was, she decided “time to talk”.
And, as it turns out, put a match to a bonfire.
In her article she wrote: “I still strongly believe that women can ‘have it all’ (and that men can too). I believe that we can ‘have it all at the same time’.
“But not today, not with the way America’s economy and society are currently structured. My experiences over the past three years have forced me to confront a number of uncomfortable facts that need to be widely acknowledged – and quickly changed.”
Her conclusion was: “If women are ever to achieve real equality as leaders, then we have to stop accepting male behavior and male choices as the default and the ideal. We must insist on changing social policies and bending career tracks to accommodate our choices, too. We have the power to do it if we decide to, and we have many men standing beside us.”
“We may need to put a woman in the White House before we are able to change the conditions of the women working at Walmart. But when we do, we will stop talking about whether women can have it all.”
Since then, writers at The Washington Post, Mother Jones, Salon, Slate, Commentary, The American Prospect, Morning Joe, Feministing, The Nation, Forbes and The New York Times have all had their say.
They raise myriad issues:
- That having “choices” is born out of first-world luxury. Women in developing nations and the working poor grapple with this dilemma every day. Privileged, educated women see “the glass as half-empty rather than half-full”.
- That The Atlanic has a record of “woman baiting”. That it is driving women backwards – into the kitchen and rocking the cradle – and not encouraging them to go overcome and march on.
- That feminists have sold out the younger generation of women by not telling the truth. “It’s a trap, a setup for inevitable feminist short-fall.”
- And what about men? They too have been working long hours, been missing their kids for generations. “Most of them worked longer hours and spent less time with their families than today’s ideals of fatherhood would permit; many of them no doubt retired and died wishing that it could have been otherwise,” wrote one.
Perhaps the most overwhelming insight comes from E.J. Graff at The American Prospect in an article entitled” “Why Does The Atlantic Hate Women?”
She writes: “She (Slaughter) is right about this core truth: Being both a good parent and an all-out professional cannot be done the way we currently run our educational and work systems.
“When I talk to friends who’ve just had children, here’s what I tell them: Being a working parent in our society is structurally impossible.
“It can’t be done right, so don’t blame yourself when you’re failing.”
Here at The Hoopla, we agree. It’s time to talk.
We think “work/life balance” is a term that should be retired. Forever. Too many of us are hoodwinked into believing it can be achieved with an hour of yoga or a “Girls’ Weekend Away”. Australians now work longer hours that our convict forbears did. Here are the stats: In 1799, the hours of work for convict labour were officially set at 50 per week. In 2007 one in three male workers in this country toiled for 49 or more hours for their employer.
We agree that the expectations of being a good employee or a good parent are too often in conflict. Change has to come – be it job sharing/flexible work hours/working from home/ in-office child care or financial compensation for working parents. Parents – men and women – are raising children who are future workers. This is an important task.
We need employers and government to understand that when fathers and mothers put family first, business prospers.
Wasn’t that the lesson of Mary Poppins? A weekend “work bonding session” should never be regarded as superior to nursing a sick child or other family member.
If, indeed, women do make up the majority of the population, then why are work policies and pay rates in place that discriminate against us for being mothers and breadwinners?
Why – to encompass every argument here – are women (and men) set up to fail by archaic notions of work that should have been long retired, along with Lancashire cotton mills?
And in the latest salvo, it’s the Guardian writer Gail Dines who has chimed in from the other side of the Atlantic sea:
“Our goal should be to restructure institutions from the inside out, and for this we need women – and, indeed, some men – who bring feminist politics to our economic, political, and social organisations.”
And, Australia’s Helen Conway, Director of the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Agency, joins the debate this morning. In response to this article, she writes:
The challenge of juggling work and family responsibilities must be repositioned as a “family issue” and a “business issue” – not a “women’s issue”.
There is a prevailing attitude that work flexibility is something offered to women to tackle a “female” problem. There needs to be a concerted effort to enable men to work flexibly so they too can share the caring responsibilities. Many men want to take on more domestic duties but can’t because the out-dated notion that women do the caring is firmly entrenched in workplace policies.
Parliament is currently considering amendments to the Equal Opportunity for Women in the Workplace Act (1999) that will encourage businesses to offer flexible working arrangements to men and women.
Until we allow men the same flexibility at work, women will continue to shoulder the lion’s share of the caring and their careers will be harder hit.”
This post was first published on The Hoopla.
Jane Waterhouse is Publisher at The Hoopla and a Premium member of Business Chicks, you can request her business card and connect with her here.