Can “All” Be Ever Had?

                 CAN “ALL” BE EVER HAD?

I was disappointed to read my younger son’s tweet that he thought DtJ was “losing its way a little”.

Intense enthusiasm and then losing the way has been the pattern of feminism since I first became personally interested in it about 60 years ago.

And here I must say I do not entirely agree with my son and I commend DtJ on the excellent and successful efforts it has made and continues to make to encourage the civil expression of what now appears to be an almost universal disapproval, if not yet universal recognition, of misogyny. I hope that with all the enthusiasm and magnificent human resources DtJ has provided that it and we, both women and men, can move on to even greater united goals.

However if we ever want sexism to come to an end we have to take one step further to a point where many women, including well respected theoretical and practical feminists, seem not prepared to go. That is we have to seriously consider an answer to the question, “Can we have it all?” My own answer is an imperative “No.” 

My answer is “no”, not because we cannot force our way through “glass ceilings” nor because we are not “superwomen” or because we face biases against us. My answer is that no-one can “have it all”, that is all they would like to have, be they man or woman.

Every step we take through life means that we close doors behind us. In educational pursuits we have limited subjects that we can study simultaneously. In job opportunities when we take one path we cannot, at the same time, take another. When we dress to present an image we cannot expect people to see that underneath there may be another truer image. When we take up leisure activities we have to choose, each time, between very many tempting possibilities; perhaps blogging, playing the violin or playing tennis, to take three small examples. We can’t possibly do them simultaneously. 

We all have a limited time to live not only in a linear direction but in a depth direction. If we wish to complete an activity in depth we have to spend much more time on this activity than if we wish to dabble in it. Both dabbling and digging deep and anything in between are, of course, quite reasonable choices during life.

In the workforce men have accepted this for years. If they prefer to be primarily career oriented they realize that they will be sacrificing time with their families, if they indeed chose to have families. Some men have focused on careers less willingly but at the behest of the mothers of their children who wish to stay at home full time with those children. On the other hand, some men wish to focus on their families or on other major interests besides work and have accepted they may be considered career “failures” by some high flying friends or colleagues.  Because they may be less available for emergencies or unscheduled work demands, or they just take essentially less demanding jobs, they may earn less money and will probably be promoted more slowly than those more focused on careers.  It is patently clear when men make these choices.

Fewer women are prepared look these options in the face and acknowledge them as equal ground on which to make their own, very real, long term choices. It is not possible, therefore, for them and then others to be sure what many women have actually chosen. Some women even erroneously and confusingly refer to parenting as a “career” choice rather than another, different part of the lives most of us live.

I acknowledge that women who opt not to have children, like our Prime Minister, Ms Gillard, are often criticized for so doing and regarded as odd whereas that choice made by men is more readily accepted. It has been said childless women cannot understand the needs of children and families. We must continue to fight against this attitude as it should be a legitimate option for women in this day and age of contraception. Nuns, over many ages, have not been criticized for childlessness. In fact they have been regarded as ideal as teachers of the young.

More and more women with careers have husbands whose own working life enables them to be the primary carer of their children. Increasingly this appears to be an alternative that is viewed as only the concern of the couple. However some men who do this are subject to a level of criticism and ostracism, mostly from women, similar to that directed at childless women. This should stop in both cases.

It is also accepted that mothers and fathers can take equal responsibility for their children and that this can involve less career ambition for both during the time their children are young.

BUT there are still many people, women in particular, who demand that having children gives them special status and exemptions in the workforce whilst, at the same time, expecting they should continue in a parallel projection with those unencumbered by home duties. 

I have seen this first hand, as a childless professional woman, as a working mother, then as a working older woman with few family responsibilities and lastly as a working grandmother. (And yes, older women can be devoted to career, even though probably remaining some years behind equivalent childless contemporaries.) I have been the recipient of many kind offers from colleagues at work when my children were young. I have happily stood in for colleagues who were mothers or fathers facing emergency situations with children. I think in any workforce there will be people who will help out. But this is not a right to be exacted. It is a reciprocal gesture between friendly, supportive workmates.

I can give a myriad of examples from my own experience of these demanded special exemptions but one in particular stands out. As a mere observer working in very close association with a particular large organization, I saw one woman take three long periods of maternity leave while her fellow workers relieved in her senior job (and most competently). When she returned to work each time, the person relieving went back to one of the more junior jobs. On each of her returns she took short hours, could not complete her job properly and yet they helped her out each time with no extra remuneration. (They eventually did quietly complain to friends but were initially very tolerant.) Two of the three who helped were also mothers of young children. One of them should have been able to be promoted to the senior job that the woman concerned, for more than seven years, could not manage without significant extra help. She should have returned to one of the more junior jobs between births which she probably could have managed with less stress all round.

I have been privy to, and the sometime subject of, the dismay that some women with school age children express when co-workers ever request time off during school holidays. Whatever the reason for the request they would complain that they, once again, needed the school holidays. This was spoken in the voice of absolute entitlement, “but he/she does not have school age children!” No other reason could equal that in their eyes.

The problems with the apprenticeship situation looms large. If a female becomes pregnant and takes maternity leave her position must be kept for her on return. Small businesses often cannot look for another apprentice to cover her, as in a years time they would then have two apprentices at the same level which is often totally unworkable and sometimes just not affordable as well.

The consequences of these type of unfortunate expectations and experiences, some of which have been enshrined in the law, is that employing women who have small children or who may have children in the future can be, in some circumstances, a very unattractive proposition. Women workers as a whole then become less desirable and so ultimately their salaries become less.

The culture and the law that dictates that the fact that whether people have children or not cannot be a factor in their selection, then becomes, not an equality, but a negativity for all women.

If women and men and their prospective employers (some of whom in this day and age are also women with children) could discuss these situations openly we might have more success with appropriate mutual expectations. Jobs with some guaranteed time off in school holidays and with enough other employees placed to ensure that emergencies could be covered, might be less well paid but would be more secure and comfortable for the worker, fellow employees and employers. Prospective employees who could explain at the start of employment that they had no plans for families or, alternatively that they had good child care and back up plans in place, might find themselves more quickly placed and receiving better starting salaries.

The demand to “have it all” with no sense of any of the extra obligations such an attitude implies for the employers and the fellow employees of the woman demanding the “all”, the possible financial cost to employers or the demands placed on taxpayers (many of whom are themselves not demanding “all”), significantly contributes to the reduced desirability of women in employment.

And for those whose aim is for equality with men, I contend that we must make ourselves as aware as they are of our own individual choices surrounding the workplace and remain as consistent with those choices as we can. If we want families and the privilege of having children we must also allow men the opportunity of equality in family care choices, acknowledging them to be equal in the realm of child care after breast feeding is no longer required, and not to hold to the myth that this is an area that is the superior domain of women.

In short we must have the discussion while accepting that each woman’s aims and expectations about the workplace/childcare balance will be different and may very often be less consistent over a working life than that of many men. 

Those discussions may be difficult but different aims and expectations and particularly their consequences must be able to be discussed openly and with insight, firstly between ourselves and then with prospective employees.  Because of these differences, women as workers are far from equally attractive to the workforce. I imagine the numbers of people and the strength of the differing opinions of those who disagree with what I contend goes some way to proving what I say.

Women can’t have it all but nevertheless I can personally attest that we can enjoy what we decide and negotiate to have, even a plurality (though from time to time, the grass will seem greener on each of the other sides). If we continue to demand the  impossible then, like a greedy child, we will probably continue to receive, as a gender, less than we individually deserve.


About Anne Powles

I am retired from paid employment. During my working life I have been variously and sometimes contemporaneously, wife, mother of four, lawyer, teacher and psychologist. I have also been a serial education junkie. As are we all, I have been an observer of the world around me. Here I have recorded some of my memories, observations and theorisings.
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2 Responses to Can “All” Be Ever Had?

  1. What a sane, logical, sensible discussion of a topic that has many angles and many opportunities for someone to feel aggrieved at someone else’s “advantageous” position.

    It’s time for all members of the work force to be reasonable about the sacrifices other members of the work force [and those who are not] make – or when they don’t have a choice at all, but their life as they live it has been thrust upon them.

    If everyone holds out for the ‘my rights are superior to yours’ position based on tradition alone, then the result is embittered workplace relationships and stressed social and family ties, with some people trapped in the melee all round.

    It’s got to be give and take. Who knows? Someone holding rigidly to one viewpoint may suddenly find themselves in one that forces them to think again. That’s why pragmatism and generosity of spirit all round are essential.

  2. Anne Powles says:

    Thank you for your comments. I am pleased you mentioned that there are those with little choice at all.
    There are, fortunately, a large number of people with a generosity of spirit and they make life, and work, worth it all.

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