We need to ask some new questions

Often I read of the terrible, inequitable, sad situation of workplaces where women are under-represented. Such articles are so frequent in the places I tend to read (e.g. feminist blogs, Guardian) that I'm writing this as a generalised response rather than linking to a particular article. Such articles have a point, and the fight for workplaces which reward merit not conformity to a particular set of mostly male features must continue. When I tutored at university, my history students included many older women who were juggling the care of small children with study. My friend who was training to be an engineer had a few older male students in her class but the small number of female students were all under 25. Not enormously hard to work out why: daily labs until 5pm and the expectation of full time study were the norm.

But I want to argue tonight for asking some different questions, and I'm basing my thoughts on my own experiences. A couple of days ago, I went on a work-related course. It was fantastic. I learnt a huge amount and came away re-energised and enthusiastic about achieving my work goals this year. As occasionally happens to me, I thought of what I would do if I was running the show. But I am not angry about not running my department and I don't feel like anyone has got in my way. I'm fortunate to work in a job with flexible work time in the school holidays and my specific workplace is very very family friendly. Invaluable given that I'm often home with sick children. I'm not working part time because the door of full time work opportunities has been closed to me. I'm working part time because that is what I want to do.

I want to watch Brighid when the orchestra visits kindy, as it did today. I want to go to the school assemblies and trips (sometimes I can't because it clashes with work but the world doesn't end, soemthing works out with a trip sometime). I want to visit my elderly cousin each week. This afternoon I did FH's work for an hour so he could collect Brighid and they could watch Fionn's school assembly. Extra excitement when it turned out he got a certificate. We are lucky in that there is some, though limited, swapability in our jobs. I want to take them to the library, to make sure they eat well after school, to let them have friends around, to know the world they circulate in.

Just because I want to do these things does not mean anyone should, or has to. Please don't assume for one second that I think parents should not work or that a mother's place is in the home. I'm only talking about what I want to do. The fact that it rains so much here does help keep house prices down and makes it easier for us to enact this vision for our family life.

But can we talk about what goes on when people, like me, do want to stay out of the hierarchy of the workplace in order to pursue unpaid goals? Because it does annoy me when I find assumptions that highly educated people are not using their skills when they stay home and engage in unpaid care work.

As well as legitimately asking why women are not fully represented in jobs with high pay and high responsibility, I want more commentators to ask questions about how we care for others in unpaid contexts. I can't contract out the service of visiting my elderly cousin. It might be possible to pay someone to visit her, to take her out and help her with difficult challenges as they arise. But you cannot pay someone to have the emotional and almost tangible connection of being family.

Regarding childcare, we do pay for it. I don't have sufficient words for how special Robyn and Sharon are in our lives. When I graduated, I had lunch beforehand at a friend's house. I had much admired my friend's family situation because I saw through them the tangible proof that both parents could pursue careers and raise fantastic children within a close and supportive environment. That afternoon, not just my friend's parents, but also Mrs M, who had cared for my friend since she was two weeks old, were at the ceremony. I'm hopeful that our lovely childminders will still be in the lives of our children when they turn 21 and when they graduate from whatever they choose to train in. I also choose to be with my kids most of the time they are not at school and kindy. I want to. That's what I chose when I had them, and each year as we decide our plans, I have continued to want to spend that time with them.

A few weeks ago, I had a wonderful time in Nelson at the birthday party of an old school friend. I was both delighted and impressed with how all of my friends who had had children are enjoying them. Later on, as I was reflecting on the party, I relished a particular aspect of it: there was a diversity of roles within my friends' families. My high flying lawyer friend loves her daughters and her husband enjoys the flexibility that his work gives him to be the person who collects the girls if they are sick or changes his hours to watch their special events at kindy. Several male friends had taken a year's leave to look after their children while their wives worked. I hope my own children grow up seeing that diversity, finding it normal.

Asking questions about who cares for our vulnerable people - the sick, the very young and very old, the mentally unwell and others who cannot maintain independence - need not, should not, be conflated with asking where the women are, although currently that is where a lot of women are. We need to ask questions about how our entire society can arrange itself so that people with meaningful relationships with each other can provide care when needed. We've got a long way to go.


Sharonnz said…
Nicely put, Sandra. Nicely put.
Anonymous said…
I second Sharonnz and award this sentence qutoe of the week: "But you cannot pay someone to have the emotional and almost tangible connection of being family."
Annanonymous said…
I agree with the others, Sandra - well said. And it's great that you've been able to hit a reasonable balance between your different life priorities. I'm still working on that one!
Annanonymous said…
I agree with the others, Sandra - well said. And it's great that you've been able to hit a reasonable balance between your different life priorities. I'm still working on that one!
Muerk said…
Oh yes, well said.

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