This article was originally featured on Women24 and another version in the Wits Business School Journal.

The mother of all impediments to women’s quest for equality – and quality of life, for all

In the so-called “mummy wars” fought in school car parks and beside jumping castles at kiddies parties, and of course, in the media, the defensiveness, let’s be honest, is all on the part of the working mother.

When the working mom says something like, Honestly, I so admire you. I could never do it myself. I practically ran back to work, the full-time, stay-at-home mom usually obligingly apologises for herself with a shrug, and rarely bothers with gratuitous jabs like Honestly? Honestly I don’t know how you manage it. What is the after-care facility like at the school?

Behind their backs, of course, they might indulge in a spot of God, just listen to the screaming next door. They’re left with the maid all afternoon – mother works, of course. Shame.

The real shame, of course, is how women turn all judgy-judgy on one another for their “choices”, that are, when you get right down to it, damn unfair. Let’s rewind.

My generation of women we were raised to believe that we were the rightful heirs to the women’s libbers, who’d fought so we didn’t have to have hairy pits or burn our Wonderbras. If someone had tapped me on my shoulder pad at my matric dance back in 1989 and shouted over the Banana Rama that I’d end up a housewife, I’d have snorted spiked punch through my nostrils. Even when I hobbled off to work in my first pair of high heels and a cheap power suit, I didn’t think I need think bigger than my own petty ambitions.

Fast forward a few years and bam … I became a mother. As I watched that pink strip materialise in the window of the plastic stick I’d just weed on, the illusion of equality was shattered in an instant. Confronted with my choices:

  • career with rent-a-mommy;
  • self-relegate to the “mommy-track” (code for take a demotion to a badly paid, dead-end, part-time job, while shouldering a near-full-time workload and domestic overload); or
  • quit,

I quit, because I didn’t want to miss my kids’ growing up, but also partly (and I’m wincing inwardly as I type this) because it gave me an honourable discharge when I couldn’t pull my big girl panties on at work – too much playing nice and serving tea in meetings and cowardice leads to a career going nowhere. Either way, I became a complete dependent on my husband, to whom I now also found myself playing Roger-the-Cabin-Boy in exchange. After dumping the traditional burden of provider on him, cooking supper and taking the dog to the vet, had also somehow ended up on my list of jobs. Wife, mother, and now home-maker – my life, it turned out, was barely souped-up from my grandmother’s. For someone brainwashed into thinking that feminism was a dirty word – I only ever heard it in the context of sarky denial, as in I’m not a “feminist”, replete with finger quote marks – it was funny how my destiny had been dictated by my sex after all.  You’ve come a long way, baby. Shut up Virginia Slims, you lied to us, on so many levels.

What struck me as I’d grapple with the buckle on the trolley-mounted baby seat in Woollies on the way back from Moms ‘n’ Tots, or Mothers ‘n’ Miracles, or was it Mommy ‘n’ Me, (while the baby’s brother rammed the trolley into my shins and whined for Ghost Pops), was the complete absence of Daddy ‘n’ Diddums anywhere in a suburbia that still looks spookily like 1950. While in the jugular of the economy, boardroom tables still look about as diverse as the men’s toilets, decades after universities began funnelling fifty-fifty ratios of grads like me into the skilled labour market. And once you start controlling for tokenism (like the female HR director) by cross-checking top-earner spots, the truth becomes even more painfully apparent.

Now, is that (a) because women suck, or (b) because in the face of unsupportive husbands and bosses they do tend to shred their honourary passes to the men’s club, if they ever had one at all, once they become mothers? I’m going with (b).

I get that it’s an over-simplification (see hideous confession above), but when competition for the boss’ job has pushed the average working week to over fifty hours in in the upper ranks of the corporate hierarchy, trying to meet the competing demands of children on that finite resource of time gets punished – and let’s face it, it is women who choose to take the punishment for reduced hours.

Oh, we hope the back-bench will be temporary, but the reality of those boardroom tables is that there is no way back for women stuck in the no-man’s land of lower-middle management or what in MBA-speak is termed ‘staff’ roles, like the Siberian gulag of ‘strategy’, having self-selected out of ‘line’, or even for those who side-lined themselves in ‘line’ – deliberately putting their hand up for the dog accounts, say, to relieve some of the pressure – and certainly not for those who exited. There aren’t any “on-ramps” for women in their forties. The catchy little rider to You can have it all of just not at the same time conveniently airbrushes over the fact that women would be competing at entry level against both men and their younger selves, (who would be stupidly sitting around exchanging glances with the men, most of whom are fathers, as the working mom rushes out the meeting to get home in time to kiss her daughter goodnight). Sorry, I forgot, we could become a “mompreneur” in a cottage industry with pretensions.

What I don’t get is why the hell we play by these rules? Rules that, by default, are still set by men, since we don’t get to the top of the game. We compete on this un-level playing field and resort to judging other women for how they’ve played the game whenever we feel a bit resentful. Women who were consigned at fifteen to Standard Grade Maths and Home Ec for matric counter being labelled a captive breed of hyper-competitive, neurotic, control-freakish über-Mommies fiercely contesting the office of Class Mom with the uncomfortable truth that everyone pities the kids being raised by a paid surrogate or, shudder, in institutionalised care – children need parents. Just not Daddy, apparently.

There’s no “daddy-track” in the known world, and for men, training for the Sani-to-Voetsek, say, is tolerated, respected even, but leaving to spend more time with the family is universal code for getting fired. Is that because men love their children less or because women lack ambition?

Or is it because we are all victims of an obsolete system that worked only because women didn’t and which still costs women their income earning potential and men their family lives and ironically even the firms and their profits whose interests it ostensibly serves, as well as the economy as a whole.

If we really started taking account of the hidden costs of all those long hours, and not only in terms of low productivity (the time spent slumped over the desk at the arse-end of the diminishing marginal returns curve trawling TripAdvisor) but the real social and economic costs of draining half the skilled labour pool that is a direct consequence, it would motivate a seismic shift in our concept of a work-life balance:

  • for less and more flexible working hours to be the norm for both men and women
  • for the revolutionary advances in technology to be leveraged to shift the locus of work away from offices to reduce commuting time – for offices as meeting rooms only
  • for performance-based pay systems to actually measure performance not hours clocked – wooh! – and for promotions that don’t depend on pulling all-nighters and piss-ups on weekends
  • and yes, dammit, for fathers to be parents.

Given that the vast majority of breeding age adults will eventually insist upon breeding, you’d think it would be in our collective interest to free up more of the workforce’s time – a good chunk of which wasn’t all that productively spent anyway – to invest in the future generation and retain the full supply of skilled labour. The economy would keep its workers, children would get parents. It’s win:win. If after-school child-care was split between both parents, we’re talking two to three afternoons a week, for God’s sake.

Perhaps we’re all too invested to admit the same work could be done in less time, but it’s tough to reconcile our working model with the thirty hour working weeks that are the norm in parts of Scandinavia and the Netherlands. Those Vikings are not noted for their lousy standard of living, now are they?

There’s already precedent set for reduced working hours at minimal productivity loss, there’s a powerful case women’s equal participation in the economy as a driver of GDP growth, as well as hard evidence to support gender parity at the level of the corporation – the bottom line is that fishing in a full talent pool boosts the bottom-line, but nothing is going to change until women start bitching.

It might not even be women who are the biggest losers right now – it’s old men clutching their hospice worker’s hands and telling them how much they regret working so hard, ain’t it? – but in a world where money and therefore power are still massively skewed by sex, it’s us, the losers, who need to start setting fire to some more bras, especially those maternity ones with the cute little press-stud thingymajiggies.

Challenging the deeply held social norms both at home – about the “division of labour” – and on the work-front that perpetuate those massive distortions is not just a moral issue, but an economic and social imperative. It’s about more than equality for women, it’s about quality of life for us all.

It’s time to grow a pair of DDs and reclaim the f-word. I know that that even after all this you still don’t want to get lumped with all that air-fisting and shouting “Screw you the patriarchy!” – ‘cause no-one would want to screw you and your hairy pits. But don’t worry, I’ve sexed up the f-bomb for you. I’m a lipstick feminist. It’s totally hot, like champagne and mardi gras and also like jalapeño and habanero. Let me explain: People listen when you start talking about sexual politics. Maybe that’s because they think the conversation is going to be about Adulterers Anonymous websites, or whether Viagra is a his-and-hers drug, even maybe bikini waxes dictated by You Porn, or sex at any rate, which disarms them right before you point with a finger that isn’t polite and yell; ‘That’s right, assholes, this shit is over.’

 

photo credit: bbaltimore via photopin cc

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