I despise the term ‘housewife’. I can knock in someone’s teeth for asking if I’m a ‘housewife’. No, thank you, I’m married to my husband, not the four walls we call our house. I’m not going to bore you with another rant about how terrible and derogatory the term is, because I’m sure you already know and have never used it in your life. There is another term that I hate even more than ‘housewife’ and its ‘working mom’.
I went back to work when Baby A was 9 months old and for those 7 months that I worked, I heard the term ‘working mom’ more times than I can count. My husband went back to work a week after Baby A was born, and 20 months in, no one has ever called him a ‘working dad’. A father who is employed outside the house is indistinguishable from his peers, but the mother is labelled, and contained within that label is everything wrong about our approach towards having a gender balanced workforce.
There are clear benefits of having women equally represented in the workforce, and I won’t touch on those here because that’ll take me off on a tangent. For the purpose of this article, let’s work with the assumption that we all agree that a gender balanced workforce, with women equally represented on all levels of leadership, is a good thing. In the past few years, most of the big companies have put in policies to achieve this “desirable outcome”. Most of the policies have been targeted towards the so called ‘working moms’ – flexible hours, work-from-home opportunities etc., and while we’ve seen some improvement in the numbers, the situation is far from equal.
The root of the problem is here: how can we expect women to have equal opportunities at work when we still consider parenting primarily a mother’s job? While pregnancy and lactation are definitely in the women’s arena biologically, parent-teacher meetings, doctor’s appointments, school pick-and-drop, and bedtime stories are not. Neither are cooking meals, packing lunchboxes and staying home with sick children. Parenting is a partnership, one in which each side contributes equally. Some days, one does more and other days, the other one does more. On balance, though, bringing up a child is teamwork where each partner has an equal contribution.
The societal belief that parenting is primarily a woman’s job, is the foundation upon which the gender divide in the workforce is built. Think of this as a very simple economic problem. Imagine that there is an economy with 100 adults, 50 men and 50 women. They’re all married with children, and they’re all employed outside of the house. All have identical education and skills. External childcare is easily available, affordable and of good quality. Childcare and domestic responsibilities require 6 hours of daily labour cumulatively from both parents. At work, an employee needs to put in a standard 8 hours to do a decent job and 10 hours to do a good job (or be perceived by their managers as doing a good job).
In the first scenario, the society believes that parenting is primarily a woman’s job, therefore, women do 8 hours at work and 4 hours at home (the rest of the 12 hours are spent in commute, sleep, entertainment, eating, etc.), and men do 10 hours at work and 2 hours at home. Despite equivalent education and skills, the men will likely rise up the corporate ladder much faster than the women due to the following two reasons: firstly, they’re putting in more hours and hence getting more experience, which will make them better at the job in the long run (think Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule), and secondly, they’ll be perceived by their superiors to be harder workers than the women. In reality, women and men are both working the same number of hours, it’s just that women are spending more of their time looking after children and fulfilling domestic responsibilities, because they’re expected to.
When I talk about expectations, I’m referring to both inside and outside the house. A woman might believe that it is her responsibility to take care of the children and the house despite having a job outside, because she’s been socialised into this belief since childhood. Managers will think that it’s okay to demand less of their female employees because they cannot commit as many hours as the men, and will also be more flexible with them. On the other hand, managers will not extend as much flexibility to their male subordinates, because they will expect that the wives of their male employees manage the greater chunk of childcare and domestic responsibilities. This works as a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. A father of a sick child will tell his wife, ‘Honey, you’ll need to stay home with the child today because I have a very important meeting that I can’t miss.’ The man and his wife both know that the man’s manager will not be sympathetic, while a woman’s manager will be, so the woman will choose to stay home and tend to her sick child so that her husband can go in to work. Eventually, men would rise up the ladder much quicker than women and here and there, you’ll see a woman drop out of the workforce, take up all childcare and domestic responsibilities full-time, leaving her husband to devote even more time to the workforce and rise up the ladder even quicker.
If you think about this problem from the point of view of a single company, there is not much that they can do to improve the situation. While they can be flexible towards their female employees to encourage them to continue working after they have children, extending the same flexibility to their male employees does not benefit them – it benefits the company that the male employees’ wives work for.
Now imagine scenario two, where the society does not believe that parenting is primarily a woman’s job. Each parent would spend 9 hours at work and 3 hours at home. Since each employee, male and female, would be spending the same number of hours at work, they will all get the same opportunities to learn and grow and managerial perception will not be clouded by the number of hours spent at work. Managers would extend similar flexibility to their male and female employees and parents would alternate between sick days, school pick and drop, and other responsibilities. There would be greater gender equality across all levels of leadership, across all firms in the economy.
The second scenario would also offer a much better work life balance to all employees. Since neither partner will be dependent on their spouse to cover the majority of childcare and domestic responsibility, there would exist an urgency to wrap work up within standard working hours. Think of it as someone working two jobs – if you have another job to get home to, you’ll structure your first job to end within its specific hours. Similarly, if you know that all your subordinates work a second job, you’ll structure their first jobs accordingly as well.
The above is an oversimplified view of the world. In reality, the situation is much more complex, but the basic finding remains unchanged – if we continue to consider parenting primarily a woman’s job, we cannot achieve gender equality in the workforce. The two go hand in hand. Policies targeted only towards working women with children will not be able to achieve the goal. Equivalent policies are required for working men with children, to enable their wives to pursue their careers successfully. This means that the solution to the problem does not lie with one firm or ten firms, or even a thousand firms changing their policies. The change needs to happen at a public policy level, and more importantly, at a societal level.