Since Anne-Marie Slaughter published her cover story in The Atlantic, ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have it All’, the Internet has been abuzz with talk about women and the workforce. Slaughter argued that societal barriers still prevent women from being able to balance work and life. The article has spawned dozens of reaction pieces, and some of these pieces have been part of a disturbing trend, blaming women for reaching too high, and believing that personal choices alone are responsible for the work-life balance being harder for women than for men.
One of these reaction pieces, by Lori Gottlieb in the Atlantic, suggested that women complaining about wanting to work and have a family life at the same time is akin to 6 year olds whining about wanting to go to gymnastics and a birthday party at the same time. Another one of these responses, published in the Globe and Mail by Margaret Wente, suggested, absurdly, that women trying to balance work and life is a ‘white people’s problem’ just like “running out of Starbucks Coffee at the Cottage”. Both of these articles, and many others like them, argue that ‘having it all’ (balancing work and family life) is impossible for anyone, regardless of gender. According to them, both men and women just need to understand that you can’t have your cake and eat it too! The problem is, men have been having their cake and eating it too for centuries, and as much as Gottlieb and Wente want to deny it, women are far more likely to be disadvantaged by the work-life balance than men.
All over the world, examples are rife of mothers being disproportionately disadvantaged by the way we structure our work practices than fathers. Perhaps the most extreme example is in South Korea, where more women are entering the workforce in a society that frowns upon flex-time and career breaks. As a result, fertility rates have fallen faster than nearly anywhere else on earth because this situation has forced women to either stop working or to stop having children.
The fact that women are being forced to choose between children and a career, which is occurring in North America as well, demonstrates that our societies continue to uphold a model of life and work that only allows one parent to be fully committed to the job, forcing the other parent to do most of the childrearing. Men have been balancing work and family life for centuries without much trouble, because there has usually been a wife to take care of the home. For generations, we have built our society on the idea that women are mothers and men are workers, and as women have begun to assert their place in the workforce, our societal norms and policies have not caught up with them. Take this fact for example: we constantly tell women that being a stay at home parent is the most important job in the world, while we emasculate men who do just that. Why do we only expect and encourage women to do it, and not men? Why is full-time parenting great for women, but embarrassing for men? It’s because society still views the home (and the work that is done inside it) as inherently feminine, and therefore ‘less than’ the masculine arena of work. This reality is easiest to see in large families with many children.
Only 24% of mothers with four or more kids work full time, compared with more than 80% of fathers. Furthermore, for each additional child, full-time employment for married women declines by about 10%, whereas employment rates stay roughly the same for fathers. This tells us that families don’t split household duties between parents as they become more numerous – women take on more responsibility and leave their jobs, while men continue to work. If women are ever to occupy more high level jobs which demand longer hours and less time at home, the problem of the work/life balance will need to be mitigated by more stay at home fathers, or at least by more fathers doing their fair share of housework and childrearing.
This change in the way we think about fathering and the home is crucial if we are ever to rid ourselves of the ‘second shift’, the phenomenon in which women who work full time complete their first shift at their paying job, and then come home to do a ‘second shift’ of housework. Mothers with full time jobs continue to bear most of the driving, washing, and feeding responsibilities. Continuing to view the home as inherently feminine even as more and more women join the workforce is incredibly problematic. A recent study found that men tend to look at women in the work force ‘unfavorably’, think of organizations with higher numbers of female employees as ‘operating less smoothly’, find organizations with female leaders as less attractive, and more frequently deny qualified female employees opportunities for promotion. It will take more women in the workforce and more men at home to change these stereotypes, which unfairly constrain women’s career opportunities.
The solution here is not to stop every woman whose personal choice is to stay at home from doing so. One parent can certainly have a preference for childcare over work, and that doesn’t have to change. What does need to change are the ways that we use gender stereotypes to reinforce outdated conceptions of what women and men ‘should’ or ‘ought’ to do. Our own personal preferences are not free from culturally produced gender expectations. When we place much more emphasis on maternity leave than paternity leave, when we talk about employees taking time off and working from home or working flexible hours (but only female employees) or when we revere stay-at-home mothers but treat stay-at-home fathers like a joke, we reinforce notions that men must stay in the workforce whether they want to or not, and vice versa for women.
But it will take more than just men doing more housework to make the work/life balance easier for women. As Slaughter writes in her article, even though she had a supportive husband who took over most of the parenting, it was still hard. And the truth is that it will always be hard for people who need to spend significant amounts of time away from their families for work. But there are certain things we can do, like changing the way we physically conduct our business, which could help mitigate this difficulty. Research suggests that business models built on employees spending as many hours in the office as possible don’t result in better or more creative ideas. We have the technology to work from home, and teleconference instead of traveling around the world. Companies which recognize the importance of harmonizing work and life and change their policies accordingly, such as scheduling important meetings during the hours of the school-day and making phone-ins to meetings the norm for meetings later in the day, will reap the benefits of happier, better adjusted and less stressed employees who are parents – both men and women. As Slaughter argues, women must stop accepting the male choices and behaviour that have made up the status quo: they must start changing social policies and career tracks to accommodate their own choices too. But for this shift to truly take place, men will need to realize that a well-balanced life is important for them just as much as it is for women.
Bronnie Ware, an Australian palliative care nurse, recorded the dying epiphanies of her patients in their last twelve weeks of life. Every single male patient she nursed told her that ‘I wish I hadn’t worked so hard’: that they deeply regretted missing out on the lives of their children and partners to spend more time at work. When both men and women understand that a work/family life balance is important – and this shift is slowly happening – we will start to make real progress.