In my work, I read about it all the time. Women go into politics less than men, and do less well, because of their unequal family responsibilities. Women’s careers bear the cost of these responsibilities, in terms of both their choice of job and their ability to advance there. Women struggle to fulfill their roles at work while also putting out more labour hours than men at home. It’s the story of many women who work, virtually everywhere in the world, both in the past and now.
It’s one thing to read about it and another to negotiate it. People, not just partners, expect women to put their children first, regardless of the cost to their careers, as if women don’t have an equal right to do well in their job while also having a family. I swear, men can both put in the time necessary and count on someone else handling it at home so that they can do better for themselves and as breadwinners.
Do men have the career-family conflicts and dilemmas so often experienced by women? Do men go into parenthood expecting to do an unequal amount of child or family care in addition to their full time jobs? Do men in vast numbers decide that their careers are just going to have to suffer for a few years because they’ve become new dads? Do they choose careers that would allow them to work, father and stay sane?
There might be some out there, but they simply don’t match the numbers of women globally. Of course, paternity provisions that allow men to take time from work without loss of pay or status would make a huge difference. So would making the work of caring not seem like a detraction from the real, paid work of the public sphere…you know, something you can’t put on your CV.
Yet, women do this everyday. They leave jobs to care for children. They take leave without pay and a personal cut to their economic autonomy and power. They up the labour hours they spend on reproductive work, despite the fact that they can’t put that on their CV. They do it because women have, largely, always recognised the value of work for family and they’ve continued to prize the joy of caring. But, they also do it because parents, in-laws, partners, friends and strangers on the street think that extra labour and those personal costs are ‘naturally’ theirs and not men’s to bear.
People have told me that women are naturally meant to spend the first years with their children. Whether that is true or not is up for debate. What’s obvious is that this ‘natural’ addition to their labour is almost completely unrecognised by workplaces and the state, who provide 14 weeks – not years – of subsidized maternity leave. So for years, it’s up to women to manage both their desires and right to work outside of the home, and the popular conception that their rightful work is actually in the home. Any dudes out there going through this too?
Somehow, women have to also account for the sacrifices their families make for their careers. Doing what you have to do, and what you used to do before family in order to do well seems like a luxury, something to be grateful for, because really it’s not something that should be expected, without guilt, as a right. Relationships and parenting are a negotiation, but how many dudes make decisions about their work duties in relation to their partner’s permission. Or their sense that if they are not there at home with the kids, they are lucky that someone is willing to fill in for and stick by them. Yet, people of all walks of life invest in these ideas.
Somehow, few people are as invested in what this means for women across classes, careers, family types and size, aspirations, ethnicity, religion and nationality. If women’s inequality, precisely because of their double burden, doesn’t appear on the horizon to you early, you can’t miss it once you have a baby or a friend, colleague or sibling has a baby. Suddenly, you see it everywhere.
With the social expectation that women must naturally, expertly and effortlessly combine their career aspirations with unequal responsibility for family, while still looking good, we are being set up to fail, even if its only in terms of properly looking after ourselves. Women do it of course. They get up at 5am to cook. They fold clothes at night. They hustle from work to hustle to take their children home to hustle to get to their class on time at UWI. Somehow, they still make it to the gym, the hairdresser as well as to church or to their community group or PTA meeting. Some men might do it too, but doubtlessly this is a women’s reality for many – even educated women, empowered women, feminist women.
If women are ‘naturally’ meant to unequally labour for their families, the entire economy should be organised around a valuing of and support for that. Otherwise, who loses? If mass numbers of women take up this responsibility although it is not ‘naturally’ theirs, this too should be seen as a social and socialisation issue, not an individual experience. Otherwise, what about women’s collective experience will remain unrecognised and invalidated? If women have to negotiate with men around these issues, how can they best be supported? And, what does a lack of real institutional, societal and structural support say about the naturalisation and acceptance of women’s inequality?
Women, with or without children, have equal right as men to work and a career. Women with both full-time jobs and children have a right to equal labour hours as men, whether in or out of the home. Women who become unequally responsible have a right to have that additional labour valued with societal and institutional support. Anything less withholds rather than shares care – and I mean care for women – and is simply not fair.