Women at work – making the conversation current
I would be the first to acknowledge the huge strides that have been made in terms of women’s emancipation. I enjoy many rights denied to women in the not-so-distant past, often without considering the sacrifices previous generations made to win them in the first place.
Women still face struggles, however, and it is a matter of justice to acknowledge where they exist. The complaint, ‘Women want to have it all’ is as outdated as it is inaccurate, yet it remains a persistent myth, particularly regarding women in the workplace. The reality is that women do not so much demand to ‘have it all’ as they are expected to ‘give it all.’
It is very easy for working mothers to be overwhelmed by the sense of being pulled in all directions, expected to be all things to everybody: shuttling children to playdates or swimming lessons; organizing perfect birthday parties, while appearing impeccably dressed, notes in order, ready to address an office meeting or seminar. It can feel like leading a double life, attempting to accommodate two separate identities, whilst never feeling completely true to either.
What is harder to appreciate is that the exhausted working mother is not a modern phenomenon. The expectations, the parenting perfectionism, the long hours and prevailing workplace stress may be trials of contemporary living, but mothers have always undertaken paid work. Staying home to raise a family (without doing paid work at home) is a luxury we view as the natural state of things, but often only among the white middle classes has opting out of the job market been a serious possibility.
In pre-industrial Britain, women would have been almost as common a sight labouring in the fields as men, whilst women made up the majority of those employed in domestic service. Many other women did paid work at home such as sewing or weaving. As Britain underwent the Industrial Revolution, working-class women worked in the mills alongside men. The tendency of English literature to focus on the lives of the middle and upper classes can blind us to the fact that for many women, the opportunity to devote years to raising children and running a household was an impossible dream.
Despite women forming a significant part of the workforce for centuries, we lack the vocabulary to discuss women and work in a way that is not judgemental either about women who undertake paid work outside the home, or about those who choose to stay at home while their children are young. With the current socio-economic situation rendering it virtually impossible for a family to survive on one income, it is more necessary than ever for society to come up with practical strategies to ensure that women are fully supported in the workplace, whilst having the opportunity to take career breaks if desired.
There is a need to take a more flexible approach to child care, with couples deciding between themselves who should shoulder the bulk of it. A truly just society would not regard it as ridiculous for a father to stay home three days a week to care for his pre-school children. A society which truly believes in giving women freedom to make fundamental decisions about their lives would allow a woman the option of substantial maternity leave and the further option of taking a career break without punishing her by permanently locking her out of her former job or docking her pension.
The role church communities play in supporting women in the workplace should not be underestimated and can be a lifeline for many women. The challenges facing women in the workplace will not disappear – any more than working women themselves – if we treat them as an aberration.
FIORELLA NASH is a writer and bioethicist in the United Kingdom with over 10 years’ experience researching life issues from a woman’s perspective. She is author of the recent title, The Abolition of Woman: How Radical Feminism Is Betraying Women (Ignatius). She speaks at international conferences, on radio, and in print on abortion, gendercide, maternal health, and commercial surrogacy. She is also an award-winning novelist and has published numerous books under the nom-de-plume Fiorella De Maria, including Poor Banished Children, Do No Harm, and We’ll Never Tell Them.