Women still carrying the can in the 21st century

Tue, Aug 7, 2012, 01:00

SECOND OPINION:Most men still do not do their fair share of domestic work, writes JACKY JONES

IN MAEVE Binchy’s novels, the female characters are introduced to us as passive doormats who allow the men in their lives to treat them badly.

The male characters are often shallow cads, with the sloping shoulders of those who shrug off their relationship and domestic responsibilities.

In Circle of Friends Benny has to leave college to mind the family shop when her father dies, and her boyfriend Jack betrays her by sleeping with her friend Nan. In Echoes, Clare also has to kiss goodbye to her career when she gets pregnant, and although she marries David he can’t take the responsibility and has an affair.

Maeve, in her inimitable style, told it like it is for many Irish women.

Although women are now treated more equally and fairly in the work-place, things have not improved much on the domestic front. Most men still do not do their fair share of domestic work and caring. A recent OECD study found that Irish men spend, on average, 129 minutes per day cooking, cleaning and child-minding, whereas women spend 296 minutes.

Men still work longer hours than women so have less time to carry out their home and caring duties. Half a million women are not included in Irish Labour Force figures because they are looking after home and family.

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in the July/August issue of The Atlantic magazine describes Why Women Still Can’t Have it All. Slaughter was the first woman director of policy planning at the State Department in Washington DC, who decided, after two years in the high-powered job, that she wanted to spend more time with her children.

She felt forced into the decision because of the incredibly long hours spent away from home, and mistakenly concluded that women cannot have “it all”, meaning a career and children at the same time.

Slaughter argues that women who are mothers and have a time-consuming job are either superwomen, rich or self-employed. She is wrong on all counts.

First, nobody can have it all. You can be sure that most men who have children and spend long hours at work, would prefer to spend more time with their families.

Secondly, leaving home at 4.30am on Monday and returning late on Friday night with no time to do anything other than work in between, does not sound like having it all. It sounds like having nothing, no life.

In fact, women don’t want “it all”; they simply want what men already have: to be able to go to work and know the children’s other parent is doing their fair share of caring and housework. Men and women who are able to parent successfully and have a satisfying career have partners who do half the caring and domestic work or do more than their fair share as the need arises.

Doing more than half should always be temporary and negotiated, and never taken for granted.

No matter how many workplaces encourage better life-work balance, making it easier for men and women to rear children and pursue rewarding careers, equality will remain a pious aspiration until domestic and caring roles are redistributed. Women spend nearly 20 hours a week more than men on home duties. Because of this unequal distribution of domestic labour Slaughter recommends “establishing yourself in your career first but still trying to have kids before you are 35 or else freeze your eggs”.

Has she completely lost the plot? While there is no “right” time career-wise to have a child, there is a healthiest time to be pregnant which is between 19 and 32 years of age. The distribution of tasks within the family is strongly influenced by the gender roles of “breadwinner” and “child-carer”, both of which can be done equally well by people of either sex.

Irish men must spend an extra 10 hours on childcare and housework every week so that women have 10 hours more to do paid work, study or go for that promotion. Having 10 hours less to pursue their career goals should not be a problem for men as even high-powered jobs can be done in an average eight-hour day. Spending more time at work is not good for anyone, is inefficient, jeopardises safety and increases stress.

Women also have sloping shoulders and must be willing to relinquish their role as chief child-minder, cook and cleaner, and contribute half the family income. A fair society cannot afford to keep half a million women at home.

Dr Jacky Jones is a former regional manager of health promotion with the HSE

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