School hours: did feminism drop the ball?

Working parents may not be able to rely on the women’s movement to help them.

JOHN HOWARD is no feminist. So perhaps it’s no surprise that his recently stated desire to promote a better balance between work and family by extending school hours went down like a lead balloon with feminists.

While the reasons for this are complex, several important ones suggest that the women’s movement may no longer be the best organisation to articulate the plight of working parents, and to fight for a re-balancing of their employment and family responsibilities.

The difficulties that school hours and school holidays pose for working parents are legion. While schools are only one institution posing problems for working parents, and institutions only one source of the imbalance equation, Howard’s comments provided an opening to press for a round-table discussion on the issue. Such a summit should include high-level representatives of parents, teachers, young people, business and government.

Polls in America, Britain and Australia show that women nominate the lack of balance between their work and family responsibilities as their most pressing problem. Yet emerging data suggests that men increasingly expect to play an active role in raising their children, despite spending an average of four hours more a week at the office than women.

Indeed, Australian Bureau of Statistics figures last week showed that about a third of managers, professionals and associate professionals – most of whom are male, parents and aged between 35 and 60 – want to work fewer hours.

So why did the women’s movement drop the ball on Howard’s need-for-better-balance comments? One important reason was the desire not to antagonise teachers (most of whom are women) and the teachers union, which is a traditional ally. The union came out early against the plan because of understandable fears that its implementation would be inadequately funded, and so come at the cost of already overburdened teachers.

But good mummy/bad mummy politics may also have played a part in the speedy rejection of Howard’s plan. Letters from concerned parents and children flooded newspapers, defending the well-earned right of children to go home at 3.30 to frolic in the creek, pick daisies in the park and otherwise rejuvenate.

The Opposition Leader, Kim Beazley, joined in the condemnation of uncaring parents who might support the plan when he rejected it on the grounds that he would ``not want (his) child (riding home) on the roads’’ at 5pm.

The sub-textual condemnation of working parents in general and working mothers in particular is not hard to discern, although several letters spelt it out anyway: children should not suffer longer hours at school for the convenience of their career-driven mothers. Such charges of selfishness were not only levelled at any woman who would dare speak up in support of the extended school hours plan, but tarred all those whose children are enrolled in out-of-school-hours programs.

Good mummy/bad mummy politics are a landmine for the women’s movement. Many women marching under the anti-feminist or the I’m-not-a-feminist-but banners believe, rightly or wrongly, that the feminist movement supports only working women, and devalues the role of those who choose to defer or play down workforce participation to care for their children.

The women’s movement’s support for Howard’s proposal would only further entrench these women’s beliefs that feminists see little value in their decision not to work, or to work part-time to be there when the school bell rings at 3.30.

Limited resources (for example, the Howard Government recently de-funded the Women’s Electoral Lobby) is another reason the women’s movement would benefit from concentrating all its attention on traditional feminist and unquestionably gender-based issues concerning women and work – issues such as equal pay, sexual harassment and glass ceilings.

Ironically, such a concentration may also bring more women back into the feminist fold because nearly all women believe – no matter how stridently anti-feminist their rhetoric – that they have a right to as much pay, as much safety and as much opportunity for advancement at work as any man.

Bringing men into the fight for work/family balance better reflects the reality and ideal of male involvement in parenting. More importantly, until working fathers start kicking up a fuss – and threatening to down tools, alongside working mothers – nothing is going to change.

School hours are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the problems facing working mothers and fathers. Working parents missed the opportunity that Howard’s comments offered to begin a discussion at the community and political level about the degraded quality of life they and their children have as a result of the incongruence between institutions such as school and work, and the demands of parenthood. It may be that we can no longer expect the women’s movement to take up this fight on our behalf.

Perhaps, if we use the time until the Government’s next political opening organising a new movement for change – I’d call it Parents for Balance – we won’t have to see the next opportunity float by.