How do we get to greater equality? Men must be part of the equation. We need to include them in discussions on all things parenting.
A lot of parenting comes down to conversations about work life balance, childcare and all the other issues that come up after you have children. Here workingmums.co.uk editor Mandy Garner talks to her partner Gustavo about the road to equality.
Mandy: How can men and women work together to create greater equality at home and at work? The benefits are clear for both, I would think. Men, the research tells us, are stressed out, doing long hours and feeling that they are not seeing enough of their families. Women are stressed out, under pressure to parent as if they don’t work and to work as if they don’t have kids. Often they cut their hours after having kids or rearrange their entire working lives due to the huge cost of childcare and the lack of sufficient flexibility at work. That can lead to problems either progressing a career or getting back in if they have taken a career break, resulting in a lifetime impact on earnings. They are increasingly also stressed out due to long hours.
In short, no-one is happy because we are still halfway between the old model where the woman mainly stays at home and a new model where both parents work, but also in the midst of a huge techno revolution where all the plates are constantly spinning and nothing ever stays still. How do we carve out something that works, that allows everyone the time they need with their kids and also the time to do a job that caters to their skills? How do we also ensure that women are paid fairly in a world built on the model that men are the main earners and are therefore somehow more deserving of better pay?
For me it is about recognising that a fairer, more equal system is good for everyone. If women earn less, that puts more emphasis on men to earn more and to do longer hours, for instance. Is that what men want? Sometimes it is hard to distinguish what you want from what you are told that you want. Working that one out can take up valuable years. When you have children life goes at a million miles an hour. There is little time to reflect. Lifetimes fly past without you having the time to ask yourself what really, truly matters. Sometimes it takes a crisis to bring you up short. Well, we are definitely in times of crisis. It’s time for a rethink and to unpick the way we have done things, the way we do jobs, the way we do care, the way we do life and we have to do this all together, not in silos.
So that is why conversations between all of us, not screaming matches, are important. So, for me, the starting point is to make the case for why this matters and everything else links from that. How do you think we can get to greater equality between women and men?
Gustavo: The whole system needs to change. It needs a complete reset in the way we think about work life balance. At the moment we seem to be putting a plaster on an injury and pretending we are doing better by putting a few more women at the top of organisations. That is just scratching the surface, though. Women continue to be paid less and are systematically sacrificing their careers to have a balance between their professional and domestic lives.
Men pretend that by taking half a day off on a Friday – as I do – to pick up the kids we are doing enough, but it’s not going to solve the problem. It needs, as I said, a complete reset, but who in any position of power is going to put their neck on the line? Perhaps it will need a generational change and for the old regime to go. I’m not sure. I pick up one daughter on a Friday [I have four children]. It feels very important that I am helping you, but it is nothing compared to what you do. My work is not very flexible. We talk about hot desking and so on, but if you do work from home for any amount of time you get questioned.
Mandy: I totally get the need to normalise flexible working and flexibility is important, but it is also about workloads being manageable so you have time to care for your kids. How can we force organisations to be more flexible – it has to come from pressure, both externally and internally. Externally by people refusing to work for inflexible organisations or constantly asking for flex and internally by employees – men and women – pushing for it. If you really, really want it, you need to fight for it, you need to be prepared to put your neck above the parapet and ask. It doesn’t have to be an individual thing as that can be difficult.
Employee networks are a good thing or some sort of looser coalition of employees. We’ve seen in legal cases that there is strength in numbers. And we need to suggest solutions because I think part of the problem is that managers don’t know how to make it work in a way that is good for both business and employees. Constructive pressure is what it should be about. I think it is not enough to blame the system. Nothing will change if we do that. We have to argue for an alternative, better system. Do you think men are prepared to do that?
Gustavo: I personally think there are a number of men who would be ready. However, the point you made about being realistic about the workloads when you reduce your hours is very important. Let me give you an example. In my line of work [social care] you can reduce your working week from five to four days, like a few of my colleagues have done (mainly female). The problems come when within four days, you are expected to fit the work of five days, something that is called condensed hours. I’ve seen colleagues working four days but having a high degree of stress caused by the unrealistic expectations of managers. Ironically, in my line of work the vast majority of my most immediate managers such as senior social workers, heads of services etc, are female. However, the directors are mostly men.
Mandy: I guess that comes down partly to resources, but is it also about actually knowing what is going on on the ground? Listening to people who are, for instance, doing condensed hours. Do you think you would do anything differently if you started all over again or do you think that things go by so quickly when you have children that you need to do that thinking beforehand? It’s a chicken and egg thing, I guess, because before you don’t think about it much at all. At least I didn’t.
Would you have taken Shared Parental Leave if it was available or do you think you would have preferred to work flexibly and not be the one at home holding the baby? Be honest! Do you think it would work better if people could have shorter leave, but more gradual returns and men and women could cover for each other, taking it in turns? I think I would have preferred sharing the leave than putting the kids in nursery so young, but I’m not sure that the whole parental leave thing is the magic pill for equality. I think it has to be worked at, all the time, because the norm is so firmly established. What do you think?
Gustavo: I think I would have opted for flexible work to be honest, but if I would have been given the option, at the time, for Shared Parental leave I would have also considered it seriously in consultation with you.
As for planning beforehand it occurred to me that at some stage I was going to have to make a decision around childcare and work, but I was not aware about all the implications, especially for you. As I saw it, my role was being the “support act” just as I had been in the previous nine months, but not the person taking full responsibility and I think this is still the view of most men.
Mandy: Today is International Men’s Day. What do you think about it? Does it mean anything to you? I tend to associate it with people like the MP Philip Davies who tried to talk out legislation on domestic violence, etc, who use men’s rights to silence women protesting about the deep-rooted problems facing women and seek to create an equivalence between male health issues mainly and a whole system that uses physical and mental violence to subject women in every way possible. On the other hand, it is important to have a platform to shine the spotlight on men and things like mental health etc. So much of what we talk about at workingmums.co.uk is linked to men, but they are often not in the room. We need to talk together, even if it is on email! I just don’t think those discussions need to come under the label International Men’s Day. What do you think?
Gustavo: MP Philip Davies’ argument is somehow similar to the “new kids on the block” in the Spanish parliament, the extreme right, populist and fascist party called VOX. They argue that gender-based violence does not exist and the only thing that exists is violence full stop, whether it is against men or women. Just basically silencing one of women’s most dreadful realities. I personally think that International Men’s Day is the response of very frustrated and spoiled men who see the 8th of March as a threat.
However, I also agree that men have to be included and made to feel that they are part of the whole family process by making it clear that having the same right and benefits as women with regard to parental leave and flexible working means also having responsibilities around childcare. This will only be achieved when the whole perception of childcare is reset.