Life balance dilemma affects both sexes

Sat, Aug 11, 2012, 01:00

THE HEADLINE on columnist Sally Jenkins’s piece in the Washington Post puts it, “In 2012, winning Olympic gold is women’s work.”

Citing our own beloved star Katie Taylor as just one example, Jenkins concludes that the London Games are the last time anyone will ever tell a young girl, at least in sport, “That’s not for you. Find something else to do.”

If only every limiting stereotype could be demolished as comprehensively as Katie Taylor demolished the notion that women cannot or should not box. If only every other discussion of women and work could be so upbeat and positive.

Two weeks ago I wrote about Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article on women and paid work in the Atlantic, and to my amazement it infuriated my colleague, Judith Crosbie. I was particularly surprised since I suspect we agree on more about women and work than we disagree on.

Rhetorical questions are a part of every opinion writer’s armoury, but these two from Judith Crosbie made me wince, “Or maybe she [O’Brien] is suggesting that the battle between the two spheres of life is unwinnable and women should just throw in the towel and get back into the home? . . . Is she suggesting that if you work outside the home while raising a family you won’t have a humane or fulfilling life?”

No, actually. I can’t understand why I am being stereotyped as wanting women to “get back into the home”. It would be somewhat odd if I did, given that I have never worked full-time in the home, and have been the sole earner in our household for well over a decade.

It is possibly the only way I will ever be part of any 1 per cent, being part of the tiny number of women whose husbands work full-time in the home.

Perhaps because my husband works very hard within our home as a parent and homemaker, I have great respect for both women and men who choose that path. I try to represent their point of view, because few do.

Increasingly, having one parent full-time in the home is becoming the preserve of the better-off, those willing to make enormous sacrifices, or those, like my husband and me, who bought modest houses before the property boom began distorting all our lives.

Men who choose that path receive a kind of grudging respect, but women who choose to work full-time in the home are often made to feel uncomfortable.

However, I also recognise that it is now only a minority of women who wish to work in the home full-time. A different minority of women are completely career-focused. The majority of women want to both have a family life and to have paid work, and they are willing to juggle and make sacrifices to achieve that goal, including earning less money.

Yet the creators of public policy, and those who attempt to form public opinion, often behave as if only the minority who are career-focused matter. It is government policy that more women should participate in the paid workforce, and measures such as tax individualisation make it much more difficult for women, even when they passionately want to, to work full-time in the home. Lack of flexible working practices inhibit other women from working part-time.

If we are concerned about declining population, we should bear in mind that career-focused women are least likely to have more children, while home-based and part-time workers are far more likely to.

The last Quarterly National Household Survey in March shows that a clear majority of women (73 per cent) working part-time don’t want more hours. Women recognise the impossibility of “having it all”, and prioritise what is most important to them instead.

And I am very, very tired of hearing Scandinavia, particularly Sweden, cited as a model. The gender pay gap is only one point less in Sweden than it is in Ireland, and far more Swedish women than men prefer to work flexible or reduced hours.

To cite just one study, in 2008 Roger Wahlberg of the University of Gothenburg concluded that there is a glass ceiling in place in both the public and private sectors, and it is worse in the public sector. Swedish women have lower wages than men across the entire wage distribution.

He speculates that the generous maternity/parental leave and heavily subsidised public daycare incentivise women to enter the labour force, but not to make a career. Forty-seven per cent of women work in the public sector there, because it is family-friendly.

There is a price – it is practically impossible to choose to work full-time in the home in Sweden. And their fertility rate is lower than ours. The irony is that women often end up working in various caring roles, including minding other people’s children.

Interestingly, Swedish women have very high levels of burnout and long-term sick leave, according to Monica Renstig, founder of the Women’s Business Research Institute (

It is wrong that childcare in Ireland currently can cost as much as a mortgage, but Swedish-style daycare is not the answer.

The problem is not so much lack of childcare as it is lack of regard for any work other than paid work based on the “single, but married to work” male model. Why is our culture so focused on paid work as a means of measuring value? Why do we have such a disastrous “long hours” culture? That is a problem for both men and women.

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