Why men hold the key to the new feminism

All workers, not just parents and not just women, need a life.

ONE of the hallmarks of the feminism of Generation X is a more peaceable attitude towards men. This is good, because if women are to enter the next stage of the revolution, we’re going to need them.

Not that we know it. When women discuss the work and childbearing problem, they do speak of men. They note approvingly what a good father their partner will be, and how supportive he is of her desire to work. But when it comes to resolving the conflict between work and parenting, men exit stage left from women’s musings. Few expect men to contribute half of the effort necessary to get them back to work after the birth, and none see the child-care problem as a shared one.

Women’s definition of the work and parenting conflict is how she is going to take responsibility for her decision to work after she has a baby (since it is she who is ``shirking’’ what society sees as her full-time mothering obligation). Women do not see the problem as how they, a couple in which both partners work, are to face the challenge to their existing work patterns posed by the birth of their child.

Sex-role socialisation is not the only reason women tend to assume all the responsibility for planning and raising baby. They are also realists. While studies continue to report improvements over the past 10 years in men’s assumption of child care and housework, they still do less of both than women, even if both are working full-time.

Men also make more money than women and, if a child is to be cared for at home, it usually makes more sense for the low-earner to give up work. Child care is appallingly expensive. Only women with well-paid jobs make enough to cover the costs for just one child and still have anything left over, let alone two or three.

At a barbecue last month I met a woman slowly going insane from providing full-time care to a demanding toddler and a four-year-old. She yearned to return to the part-time secretarial position she had before the last child was born. But with the cost of work clothes, travel and child care, she and her husband had concluded it just was not worth it. ``I just have to wait until they’re at school,‘’ she said, ``then it will be my turn.’’

Government support, in the form of subsidised child care and anti-discrimination legislation, will go some way to making it economically rational for women to decide to return to a job they still have after they give birth. But only workplace reform will deliver to women the level playing field that will ensure their job is as worthwhile as it was before they became a mother.

While business lauds itself for providing actual part-time work and set the 40-hour working week, few women really want such ``mummy-track‘’ positions. Being on the mummy-track means getting less interesting work that, even if done well and in a timely manner, is less valued by colleagues and superiors. It also means copping the resentment of colleagues when arriving after 9am and racing out the door at 5pm. ``It’s all right for some,’’ many sneer, forgetting that the reduced hours mothers work means reduced take-home pay.

Others on the part-time mummy-track, still laden with a full-time workload, return their status to full-time so at least they get paid for the work they do.

Mothers don’t want special treatment at work, and they shouldn’t need it. What they need, like all other Australian workers, is better work conditions. All workers, not just parents, have a life and responsibilities outside work, and all would appreciate and benefit from leaving work every night at a reasonable hour.

Once all workers leave early and together, working mothers benefit. Firstly, because it’s not only mothers going home to spend the evening with the kids, but fathers, too. For working women, this means two people, instead of one, to share child collection, shopping and other domestic tasks. Secondly, when hiring and firing and promotion time comes around, the end of the mummy track means working mothers are no longer disadvantaged in comparison to working fathers, the childless or parents with older children. In fact, a ``reasonable hours for all’’ policy may assist women now parenting full-time to use their husbands reasonable home arrival time to support well-earned personal time, or to pursue paid work.

And this is where men come in. Because without an en masse challenge by working fathers and fathers-to-be to the corporate culture that is (or will be) depriving them of active fatherhood, Australian workplaces have little reason to change. While trickles of downshifters abandoning the rat-race validate our belief that workplace culture is unbalancing our lives, high unemployment means employers can replace the drop-outs with fresh-faced recruits, and never question the structural nature of what went wrong.

Men hold the vast majority of powerful positions in corporate Australia, and it is for them that current corporate culture is seen – and was designed – to cater. By joining together, perhaps in one of the newly forming unions for high-income earners, working fathers and fathers-to-be could be at the vanguard of the next revolution – a revolution for the benefit of themselves, working mothers, and every worker who has things they want to and must do after work.