Sunday, March 26, 2006

Time off to have kids

The Observer (London) carries an article today examining Alison Wolf's idea that "a new generation of bright, rich professionals [women] have broken through the glass ceiling and have nothing to fear from the men around them" has "diverted the most talented away from the caring professions such as teaching, stopped them volunteering, is in danger of ending the notion of 'female altruism', has turned many women off having children - and has effectively killed off feminism."

That final conclusion notwithstanding, much of the article is inevitably about feminists' reactions to the implied criticism and the conflict between equality in the workplace and the need to take time off for childbearing. Of course, no male opinions on the issue are presented (well, except for the usual sexist remark included to show how dense men are (look for the "diplomat")).

At the end of the article, we find a number of famous feminist quotes (but not "all sex is rape" thank God). The first one is "Men make the moral code and they expect women to accept it." Personally, I don't think that has ever been completely true, and the quote is also dated 1914, i.e. nearly 100 years ago. (Remember the line: "100 years later: all different people"?) The article itself, however, reflects a very different circumstance and today, in many arenas, it would not be at all unfair to say women are making the moral code and they expect men to accept it.

The overall tone of the article is an example of exactly this. The claim is that in certain "elite" circles, at least (uh, banking in The City appears to be about it), there is equality between men and women as long as women are prepared to work as hard as men. Well and good, you say? No, not really, because women have to take time off to have kids. Solution?

  • "We will not close the pay gap until men take time out to look after children."

  • "More leave for new fathers could address the imbalance."

  • "'Women are given up to a year off in maternity leave and men are given two weeks - that is intrinsically discriminatory, and an assumption that women should stay at home. I believe it should say men and women can take the same leave, so it is a true choice that we face.'"

  • "the ideal would be a husband in a more flexible job who would be prepared to take on above average responsibilities. 'But does such a man exist?' she said."

I might counter that last question with: if one did, would you want him, miss high-flown city woman? But that aside, it does rather sound like the suggestion is that men should work less in order to let the women keep up. Let's make men take the same amount of time off when they have kids as do women. Faced with that choice, a suitably ambitious man is just not going to have kids. That is, levelling the playing field simply encourages the declining birth rates that concerned Ms. Wolf. Moreover, it deselects for any genetic trait that encourages ambition. Competitive work environments become sterile enviroments, and sterile environments die. Oh dear, what to do?

Well, I don't know, but it does rather look like there is a price to pay for equality, no matter which way you cut it.

There was one breath of fresh air in the article: "this whole debate about work and family is no longer only about women and these days involves, for example, fathers' increasing desire to be more involved at home." That desire will not turn into action unless the corresponding sacrifice at work is supported by appropriate protections, not just at work, but in the home as well. No man will trade security at work for a part in a home in which he has no rights. Think about it. Would you?

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