Sunday, 6 March 2016

Feminism, the workplace, and failed audacity

There's a lot in the news at the moment about women's equality, workplace rights, and so on. The dominant push seems to be for quotas and strictly defined equality, so either parent can take parental leave, meaning neither sex is disadvantaged by time away from the workplace, and all of this kind of thing.
I've been reading this thinking well, they're missing the point. "They" are moving counters around a board, allocating open and closed boxes, and not understanding the early days of mother-baby bonding; perhaps more importantly, though, they are seeking freedom within SUCH a tight and unimaginative set of assumptions.
Yes, if we really honestly believe that the best work is always done in offices between exactly 9 and 5 on a Monday to Friday and that permanent employment contracts are always needed and that every job change should be career-enhancing and give a pay rise and that every business's person-hour needs are an exact multiple of 37.5, then the answer to the problem might be just to treat all employees as sexless, to let each individual take leave on the arrival of a new baby, to put in regulations about discrimination and equal pay and generally to ensure that We Are All Treated Exactly The Same which is to put it another way that We Are All Treated Exactly As Men In The Workplace Always Have Been.

Here, I don't want to explore the issues of why being a mother might not be like being a father, and nor do I want to empty out my heart on my own urgent connection to my sons that makes the full time model impossible for me.

Instead, I want to observe the structural problem. I want to howl, why aren't you looking at other options? Employers, or those who need stuff doing for them and are willing to pay for it, why are you so fearful of stepping away from that path? Instead of recruiting the right number of people for your average busy-ness, so that they're bored for part of the year and stressed beyond measure for another part, why not have a core of full-timers (and many want it. I'm not denying that) and supplement with freelancers, part timers, short term contracts? Why would you choose to limit your options, or do you truly believe that everyone available for full time work has inherently more talents than anyone offering something else?

This, to my mind, is as big a problem for women as whether maternity and paternity leave are well shared. While "we" are stuck in a mindset where there is A Single True Path, and where everyone needs to be physically present at the 10am team meeting on a Tuesday, because This Is What We Do, then we're not letting ourselves access any value from those who, for whatever reason, can't or won't offer that. Women do have babies - we really can't get past that - and while of course lots of these women do, by choice or necessity, get themselves straight back into full time paid work out of the home, we don't all want or feel able to do that. Years of training, and thousands of pounds of investment in human capital, are set aside because so many women experience a sudden shift to offering something a different shape from the crude hole that so many businesses are holding open.

There are gleams of hope, and small setups trying to bring together those wanting flexible work with those offering it, but many of these opportunities are laughable - "part time" roles asking for "only" 34 hours per week, or those described in the top line as "home based" but disclosing in the body of the ad that "occasional home working may be negotiated after a probationary period". It doesn't cut it, though. A good flexible freelancer is an amazing asset to have in your contact book - she might not be visible at a desk, and she might do things at peculiar times of day, but she also might have a pile of skills that you'd pay a fortune for in a full time employee (and not need most of the time), and she might turn things round overnight or at weekends, and she might even reward you with immense loyalty because you've taken a risk.

We do need a societal change in this respect - a move from "how do we enable women to get back to work as soon as possible?" to "how do we match work requirements with those who are best able to meet those requirements, surrendering, as we do so, our artificial and mainly imaginary constraints?".

What about the failed audacity? A personal end to this rant. I thought I could do something audacious. I could show how this can work, holding down a part time job and freelance work, being always with my babies while keeping a sharp brain, meeting other conventional employees as equals, being just as relevant and useful as anyone at a desk all week. And I was doing it, I really was, but I fear now that it's turning out to be in the same sense as an amateur juggler is "doing it" in between the point where he chucks twelve balls in the air and the point when they all tumble down onto his head. It seems I couldn't, quite, and I don't know where things go from here. I can do my best to "be the change I wish to see in the world", but gosh, out on the plains it's cold and draughty.

Note: yes, men. I'm writing about women, and the she-freelancer, because it's what I am. But men too! I believe my point about how unncecessarily limiting these self-imposed limits about timing and location of work really are applies to everyone. It's just that women, particularly in the childbearing years (and I do not love that phrase), might be bringing more of their own limits with them too.

Another note: yes, modern times, first world problem. I'm aware I could be out hoeing fields 14 hours a day, and taking in mending at night, and still ending up in the workhouse. But it matters because in the world I used to fit into, a professional world, there is a constant stream of discussion asking where all the senior women are, why women don't "succeed" (fsvo success) and so on

A final note: I have a million posts stored up, on a million topics. Hang on in there if you prefer it when I write about books or making stuff or my entirely wonderful children.


  1. Fabulous piece.

    You might like the work of Joan Williams in Unbending Gender - she talks about the 'ideal worker' with no care or family responsibilities and how we need a reconstructive feminism!

    I discuss her work in my chapter on economics in Liberating Motherhood, which will be out later in the year. I've only just discovered your blog - love it already!

  2. I was so happy to see that you'd written another post - I've been missing your blog! And good to see you in 'shouty' (?) mode too! I quite agree about the inflexible nature of most workplaces. Shame so many managers are lacking the ability to think creatively and work with freelancers in a way that would benefit all. But that's the patriarchy for you, I guess!