Tuesday, 21 July 2015

What Does a Woman Want With a Career, Anyway?

     Shortly after my parents were married, and certainly long before I was conceived, my mother gave up her day job. "In my experience," she explained when I was grown up, "when a wife is employed, both husband and wife end up working harder." It should sound like common sense to anyone who has watched overworked mothers (and fathers). However, we are constantly being told that women are getting the rough end of the stick when it comes to careers, but what does a woman want with a career, anyway? No, this is not a facetious, provocative, male chauvinist quip. All right, perhaps it is, but it is not just a facetious, provocative, male chauvinist quip. It is a serious question demanding a serious answer.
     The reason I pose it is that I know what a man wants with a career. It's a means to an end: a way to support himself and his family, and he considers himself lucky if he gets one he enjoys. Look at the popular culture: "Mondayitis", "Take this job and shove it!" and, my favourite, "Work is so awful they have to pay you to do it." All right, much of this is tongue in cheek; not everybody hates his job. Just the same, there are few alternative slogans praising work, so you get the general idea: work is a necessity, so you might as well make the most of it.
     It is true that many men measure themselves by how successful they are in their careers, but that is because their role in life is to be providers. A certain class of women is always complaining that men are able to juggle a career and family life with an ease denied to women. They fail to see that a man's career is, if not the most important, certainly the most time consuming, of his contributions to the family. All too often, when a man marries, and especially when his first baby arrives, that is a signal for him to work longer, seek promotion, and leave the job he likes for one which pays more. Indeed, the process starts even before he gets the girl. So strong is the female instinct to find a provider, protector, and - dare I say it? - leader, that even women who expect to earn high incomes, such as medical students, look for a man with equal, and preferably greater, prospects. Only as a last resort will a woman marry, or even date, a man she outranks in either social or financial position. And people wonder why men earn more than women! (Charles Schulz had a cartoon about that.)
    So, if a man's career is a means to an end, is a woman's an end in itself? Apparently so, if a lot of commentators are correct. And yet, working mothers nearly always justify their careers on the basis of economic necessity. Time and time again, mothers, particularly those with small children, tell the public opinion pollsters that their preference, in the absence of financial constraints, would be to work part time, or not at all.
     But if a woman's career is an end in itself, when did the idea start? When a Victorian husband and father shouldered his pick to go down the mine, or to dig the ditch in the rain, or collected his tackle to face the elements in the North Sea, or perhaps, like Bob Cratchit, sallied forth to sit on a stool and push a pen all day, did his wife, as she kissed him at the door, think, "Gee! I wish I had an exciting job like his."? I don't think so. Our foremothers may not have liked Eve's curse, but it is unlikely they envied Adam's.
     So where did the idea start? It is essentially a product of the women's lib movement commencing in the 1970s, which is quite different from the original feminism of such ladies as Emily Pankhurst or Lucy Stone. Now, the unspoken fundamental assumption of women's lib is that masculinity and male activities are superior, while femininity and female activities are inferior. Only by completely adopting a masculine lifestyle can a woman be liberated. And since men are bound to their careers, women must be too.
     This assumption so permeates the whole of popular culture it usually goes unnoticed. A few years ago a reality television program featured young British adults living for a period with the Amish. When one of the English girls was assigned to work with the lady of the Amish household, she complained that Amish women were confined to domesticity. Whether the house proud Amish women wanted to share the hard work of their menfolk was not asked. This young lady just assumed that "domesticity" was inferior because it was women's work. Likewise, an article I once read explained how many modern women find they still have to do the housework at the end of a day's employment (all too true!), but that many women find they have become "more equal". One of them was quoted as how her husband immediately bucked in and helped with the housework once his wife got a job. Personally, I consider his attitude laudable, but it still doesn't explain why this situation is "more equal" to the one whereby she did the housework and he followed employment. To understand  that point of view, you must see men's work as superior to women's. The situation is now "more equal" because she is now sharing his superior activities, while he is condescending to share her inferior lifestyle.
     (I notice that one feminist at least has woken up to the issue. She calls it "femmophobia".)
     Another constant refrain is that women earn 14.6% less than men. Why on earth, you may ask, would anyone hire a man if he could get a woman to do the same thing for 14.6% less? This statistic has been debunked so many times that only an ideological blindness can explain why it continues to be trotted out. Any number of studies have revealed that when apples are compared to apples - when qualifications, hours worked, length of time in the workforce, and the choice of occupation - are taken into account, the difference between male and female incomes approaches zero. In fact, in the UK, young women earn more than men! It is the female propensity to bear and raise children which makes the difference. Women who have never married or had children - old maids - have much the same income as men, and the higher a woman stands on the financial ladder, the more likely she is to be never married, divorced, and/or childless.
     But there is another factor which hardly anyone seems to mention: where do these people get the idea that men and women live separate lives? The tend to live together and share expenses. As one Australian humourist pointed out, where money is concerned, women have the better deal. Sure, we all know that men earn more. But we also know that the real fun of money lies not in working hard to earn it, but in spending it, and there women do just as well as men.
     Occasionally two high fliers tie the knot, then continue the way they were, after first handing over the child(ren) to the care of a nanny who earns less in a week than the mother makes in a day, perhaps using one of those companies who will fly her breast milk home when the mother is on a business trip. (There really are such businesses.) But that's not how the average Joe and Josephine choose to live. On the planet most of us inhabit, the better a husband is as a provider, the less likely is his wife to work full time, or at all. And, as a recent study showed, once the first baby is born both parents become more traditional in their views on sex roles.
     Another problem is the one so succinctly explained by Helen Andrews:
 When mothers started entering paid employment in large numbers in the 1970s, it led to a bidding war over middle-class amenities that left everyone paying more for the privilege of being no better off than before.
     We often hear it said that women are at a disadvantage in developing superannuation capital because of their absences from work due to child rearing. Wrong! Couples with children are at a disadvantage compared to those who are childless, and that is how the problem should be defined. It is not as if Darby and Joan live separate lives once they retire.
     By now, some people will be accusing me of wanting to put women back into the kitchen. No doubt they will add words like, "barefoot and pregnant", because when people run out of logical arguments, they tend to parody their opponent's position and argue against the parody. Perish the thought! My aim is to demolish a particular stereotype, not to replace it with another. A man may be chained to his career, but his wife need not be chained to the house. Once the children are of school age, there is no reason why she shouldn't find herself an outside interest, and if that interest adds to the family budget, so much the better. Also, we tend to forget that the dichotomy between breadwinner and homemaker is, to a large extent, a result of urbanisation, and the rise of the nineteenth century middle class. For most of history, most people have worked in agriculture, and on the land husband and wife work as a team. If he ploughed the field and mended the fences, she milked the cows and mended the clothes. Even if the husband were a tradesman, his wife usually got involved in the business. In a like manner, when my father was making bread and cakes in the family bakery, my mother would have been serving at the counter when she wasn't taking care of me.
     No! The important thing is to banish from your minds the insidious modern assumption that the female lifestyle is inferior, and that a career is something a woman must have, and must be as successful at it as a man, if she is to be "equal". Forcing women into a masculine mould is oppressive to both women and men.
     Yet that is what public policy is all about. Individuals can follow their own stars, but governments must encourage one lifestyle over another. And for the last forty years the whole of government policy has been to force women out into the workforce, and provide minimal support for homemakers. The tax system is biased towards two income families, because each member benefits from the same tax free threshold. There used to be a substantial tax concession for a dependent spouse, but over the decades governments allowed it to be whittled away by inflation, and finally they abolished it altogether because hell forbid that any wife should be a dependent. Get out into the workforce, woman, where you belong!
     Maternity leave is specifically designed to make a mother return to work, usually while her baby is still at the breast. It is not available to any woman who resigns her job. Even then, human nature tends to reassert itself, and many mothers return to work only long enough to make it official, and then resign. The employers know this is going on, but no-one is game to say the obvious.
     We are constantly told that there is a childcare crisis. No, there isn't! 99 percent of children have perfectly good carers; they're called mothers. The only reason a "crisis" exists is that so many want to farm out the care of their children to strangers. Yes, I know many of them will plead economic necessity. To the extent that this is correct, that is the problem which needs to be addressed. Yet childcare is heavily subsidised by the government. The subsidy is not provided to the mother herself, to decide whether she wants to pay a childcare centre or care for her children herself. Nor - hell forbid! - would it occur to the government to limit the subsidy to stay-at-home mothers. No, childcare is always touted as a means to get women back into the workforce, whether or not it is in the best interest of the child - or, for that matter, of the mother herself, who might not wish to be shoved back into the office or factory.
     Governments are always warning about the ageing of the population, partly due to greater longevity, but also to the fact that the birth rate is below replacement rate. It never occurs to them that it might have something to do with decades of child-unfriendly policies. Nobody admires a father so caught up with his career that he neglects his family, but where a woman is concerned, children are treated as a hindrance to her career, rather than the other way around. Please! A career is just a way to make a living. But life is love and marriage, and the bringing up of children. It is about time the powers that be affirmed it.
      (Here is report on the Dutch situation which backs me up. In Hungary, government policies promoting marriage and families have boosted the birth rate.)