Sociologist Dr. Catherine Hakim of the London School of Economics has, not for the first time, attracted considerable controversy in response to the publication last week of her most recent paper, “Feminist Myths & Magic Medicine”. Hakim has previously published provocatively titled works such as her 1996 paper “Mummy, I want to be a Housewife” and last year’s controversial article in the European Sociological Review entitled “Erotic Capital”. This latter contends that women should prize assets such as looks, charm and sexuality and that this “beauty premium” can have as big an impact on your career as your educational qualifications or background.
In “Feminist Myths & Magic Medicine” she argues that the battle for equality is effectively over, that “most of the theories and ideas built up around gender equality in the past few decades are wrong” and that women still aspire to “marry up”, that is to marry men who are richer and more intelligent than they are (though they were not asked I suspect that men would be quite keen on the idea of marrying money too; a situation that would undermine the argument somewhat). A number of outraged women have accused Hakim of “depowering women” and taking us back to the days of Jane Austen. Feminist campaigning and advocacy group The Fawcett Society accuse her of “threatening the progress made in women’s lives”.
However, the reaction to Hakim’s most recent pronouncements has been far from universally negative. Some women argue that there is merit in what she says. The reality, they contend, is that family life requires a couple to operate as a partnership and that rearing children requires one party to spend more time at home. The greater the earning potential of the male partner, the less pressure the family unit is under to juggle childcare and seek a second household income.
Hakim’s own approach is to advocate preference theory, supporting a woman’s right to choose whether to remain in the workplace or the home and using the fact that the vast majority of main earners are men to support her theory that women, when given the choice, opt to remain at home. However, in her comprehensive critique of Dr. Hakim’s theories in the most recent edition of the Sunday Times, Kate Spicer quotes University of Cambridge Centre for Gender Studies’ director Jude Brown as saying: “Hakim belongs to the school of thought that interprets certain inequalities as reflections of the choices that individuals make. The thinking here is that these choices are related to people’s preferences. But for there to be a real choice there need to be different options, instead of just herding people into stereotypical roles. For most families seeking to balance child care and work, there is no real choice”.
This is the crux of the matter in my opinion. I firmly believe that we are addressing the wrong issue entirely. Instead of looking at how we should or shouldn’t force the square peg that is the modern, well-educated mother into the round hole that is the modern, inflexible, often dysfunctional workplace should we not be asking how we can incorporate more flexibility into the workplace thus allowing society to benefit from the skill sets of women who can do more that feed a baby and fill a dishwasher?
As a rather disorganised mother of two young children I cannot envisage taking on the stress involved in juggling the kind of full-time, high-powered career that I enjoyed before my little ones arrived. Yet as a well qualified, experienced and highly motivated individual I simply cannot draw sufficient fulfillment from adopting the role of homemaker alone. For a women in my situation (and there are many of us) the options for combining a flexible career with the role as primary child carer (the housework can frankly go to hell or be sub-contracted as far as I’m concerned) are very limited. What organisation wants to hear that you are only willing to work term-time? Yet my children are in school and for thirty weeks of the year I can devote five hours per day to productive, revenue generating and ultimately fulfilling activities. That’s 750 productive hours per annum, not one of which will be spent nursing a hangover, moodily dreaming about a turbulent love life or worrying what I’ll wear at the week-end as may have been the case for my younger, single self (I’m admitting nothing). Employers take note – mothers are brilliant and efficient multi-taskers who make the most of the precious hours available.
In the recently published How Woman Mean Business (a follow-up to Why Woman Mean Business, co-authored with Alison Maitland in 2009), Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, CEO of gender consultancy 20-First, clearly and comprehensively documents how corporations can best implement strategies to achieve gender balance and attract the best and brightest members of both halves of the talent pool. She believes that enlightened companies are moving away from the old ineffective mindset and adopting radical and viable new strategies.
At 20-First gender balance is treated as a business issue not a woman’s issue and blockages are removed. This approach is considered radical and attracts clients that are, “open to new solutions and willing and committed to work with them”, having recognised that their organisation is flawed. They realise that gender balancing brings the best mix of management styles to the fore and has a positive impact on the bottom line. As for the rest, “traditional, resistant companies go elsewhere and continue to do all the wrong things.” The “wrong things” include talking about glass ceilings and setting up internal all-female support groups, thus treating women as the problem and convincing them that in order to succeed they must learn to behave more like men.
Ensuring that women remain and thrive in an organisation requires a shift away from the old notion of linear career progression. That’s why women are often attracted to entrepreneurship as it offers greater control. However, access to capital can be problematic. Wittenberg-Cox believes that, “it’s all about shifting the mindset. Creative solutions such as job sharing will work if the company is well disposed to trying them”. Many men welcome changes intended to redress the gender imbalance as this represents an opportunity to improve working life for everyone. So, is the traditional workplace dysfunctional? Wittenberg-Cox contests this assertion, saying that it is simply “outdated. [The system] worked perfectly well in its time when a man went to work every day and had a wife at home to look after him but that time is gone.”
The crux of the issue is this: women should not be expected to make unrealistic sacrifices and take on unrealistic stress; Children should not effectively spend their little lives becoming potentially institutionalised in various crèches and after-school facilities from early morning to late at night (and I do realise that this may be a personal bias and that many children seem to thrive in childcare); and men should not lose the happy, dynamic and successful woman they married to have her replaced by a Stepford style automaton who starts hitting the vino earlier and earlier each day.
What should happen is that society should reorganise itself to allow for more flexibility, thus facilitating the needs of all. Perhaps a mum could take five years out to get her children to school-going age without losing out on status and promotional opportunities as Gwyneth Williams, recently appointed controller of BBC Radio 4, did. Perhaps an Irish dad could take three months off when a new baby arrives as his Norwegian counterpart can. Perhaps junior can spend a happy morning in school knowing that he will be collected by a calm, fulfilled, contented mum not one burnt out by juggling unrealistic demands or worn down by domestic chores that hold little interest for her. Is that Utopia? Perhaps it is and I’d sure like to live there.