Stop telling us feminism means making women work more

Figures released recently by the ONS show that 3 in 4 mothers with dependent children are now in work, more than ever before. Second-wave feminism has long treated women’s entry into the workplace as an unalloyed good. The ONS numbers, and the rise in the number of working women, were met in just this way by Claire Cohen at the Telegraph, who writes that this rise is ‘surely good news, but we need to examine what sort of work these women are doing. Have they been forced to cut their hours to care for their children, as one in three women told the ONS they had compared with just one in 20 men?’

Cohen’s turn of phrase suggests millions of women chased weeping from rewarding careers into resentful servitude wiping bottoms and scrubbing doorsteps. Children are presented as a burden, or an obstacle to the more satisfying business of slaving over a hot spreadsheet. The ONS report is more circumspect, observing rather more neutrally: “Almost 3 in 10 mothers (28.5%) with a child aged 14 years and under said they had reduced their working hours because of childcare reasons. This compared with 1 in 20 fathers (4.8%).” So are women, as Cohen puts it, really being ‘forced’ by the inconvenient demands of dependent children to crush their career aspirations under the burden of school pickups and bottom-wiping?

Back in 2001, sociologist Catherine Hakim presented a multidisciplinary approach to understanding women’s divergent work-related choices in the 21st century: ‘preference theory’. She showed how five transformations have coincided to give the majority of women in advanced liberal economies more choice about their lives than ever before: contraception, equal opportunities, the expansion of white-collar work, the creation of jobs for secondary earners and a general increase in the importance of individual choice within liberalism.

Hakim argues that in the context of these transformations, women’s greater freedom is expressed in three main preference clusters: home-centred, work-centred or adaptive. In other words, given the choice, around 20% of women will choose a home-centred life, 20% of women will choose a work-centred one and the rest – the vast majority – will prefer a mix of both.

The ‘adaptive’ group, she suggests, is the most diverse, containing women who want to combine work and family as well as career ‘drifters’ and those who would prefer not to work but are compelled to from economic necessity. As a group they are responsive to social policy, employment policy, equal opportunities legislation, economic cycles and other policy changes governing areas such as school timetables, part-time working, childcare and so on.

Though Hakim’s work on preference theory is nearly two decades old now, Equalities Office statistics released last week support her tripartite breakdown of women’s preferences: nearly two decades after her book was published, around 20% of UK mothers are working full-time, 20% are not working at all and the rest falling somewhere in between.

The Equalities Office sees women’s divergent employment behaviour post-baby as a bad thing, with the introduction full of discussion of the ‘large pay penalties’ experienced by women with children, and the ways in which taking time out to propagate the species is ‘damaging for career progression’. The inference throughout is that women are compelled through the unfortunate demands of motherhood to cramp their soaring career dreams to accommodate the exigencies of dependent children. The report as a whole is full of bright ideas for policy levers that could be applied in one way or another to equalise this post-baby burden between the sexes and equalise the working patterns of mothers and fathers. But if Hakim is right, is it not possible that today’s statistics just reflect the way women prefer to work?

Flexible working, maternity leave, good quality childcare and so on are excellent things and should be celebrated. But so is not feeling pressured by the entire aggregate voice of the policy and media machine to increase our labour force participation at the expense of time with our families. It should not be beyond the capacity of commentators and policy wonks to consider that plenty of us are working about as much as we’d like to, and just consider other things as important as, or more important than work: for example the ability to flex a schedule to nurse a convalescent toddler, rather than chasing her out to the childminder miserable and full of snot. Or (God help me) sewing Halloween costumes. These things matter too, even if no MP can take credit for them and they do not show up in the sainted GDP stats.

Rather than presenting women’s part-time preferences as evidence of the hill feminism still has to climb, or the malign depredations of sexism, those good people at the Equalities Office and elsewhere might turn their minds to ways in which the diverse range of mothers’ work and family priorities could be better supported – including those choosing to work less.

In defence of an unequal distribution of housework

When I was younger and more idealistic, I started a business with friends. Being (as most twentysomethings are) well-meaning lefties, we thought hierarchy was A Bad Thing. We were determined to do things differently, with a flat structure and no one of us in authority over the others. We believed  that among the group we would self-organise to ensure all tasks were completed in a timely way.

It didn’t work. Things fell through the cracks, resentments built up. And without clear lines of accountability power games began to emerge within the group as hierarchy fought to re-establish itself. Those games culminated in such hostility that it became impossible to work together. The business failed, and in that experiment with egalitarianism I lost more than the venture I’d put heart and soul into: the friendships that had inspired us to start the business never recovered. I came away with little except a hard lesson in the value of hierarchy. Egalitarianism sounds lovely on paper, but to organise a system of any complexity there needs to be someone with an overview and decision-making authority.

This insight is not controversial in the world of business. So why, when it comes to the domestic setting, is egalitarianism still flavour of the month?

In popular feminism, we hear repeatedly that management, monitoring and coordination of domestic matters should be evenly distributed between adults in a relationship. Countless articles rehash the idea; this one is typical. The burden of remembering to buy loo roll, putting things away, packing school bags, knowing when the windows were last cleaned and so on is called ‘the mental load’. This ‘mental load’, we are told, is unthinkingly handed to women by men who simply take the smooth running of domestic matters for granted.

I do not doubt that this is often the case. My argument is with those who tell us that the solution is to redistribute this ‘mental load’ evenly. To illustrate why this is a terrible idea, imagine a small business that has two Managing Directors. They have joint responsibility for approving expenses, liaising with suppliers, paying bills, chasing invoices, remembering to get the paperwork into Companies House. How long do you imagine this situation lasts before one of the MDs is seething with resentment, having found themselves in practice being the one who is keeping track of most of these tasks, reminding the other to do things, picking up things the other has forgotten, and fuming inwardly every time their co-MD preens about their progressive company management method? This, or something very like it, happens in households up and down the country where either both parties are trying to be household MD or both are pretending they don’t need one.

The truth is that the ‘mental load’ (which I prefer to think of as executive oversight of the household) cannot be evenly distributed. Someone has to take ownership. That person can delegate parts of the work, or subcontract to paid helpers, but they cannot delegate the overview: cleaners just clean, they don’t put away, or reorganise storage, or declutter, or deep clean – not without someone managing their work – and there you are again, needing someone with executive oversight. Accounts, schedules, storage, organisation, team politics, hygiene, canteen, transport…. like any other moderately complex system, without planning, goals and direction a household rapidly becomes chaotic. There is no point expecting everyone to ‘just muck in’ and make it all work smoothly with no one person in charge. My twentysomething venture was a painful lesson in how that plays out: things don’t get done, people seethe in silence, relationships deteriorate. In short, it doesn’t work.

This matters. What could be more profoundly important to human happiness, whether individual or societal, than harmonious homes where each person knows which jobs are their responsibility and each does their part? And yet our culture treats a household either as something so simple that it should largely run itself, or else as such lowly work that taking responsibility for it is a mark of shame, suggesting as it does a fundamental inferiority to other members of the household.

Worse still, this denigration has been widely presented in popular media as a feminist view. A movement which was supposed to liberate and uplift women has ended up dismissing the complexity and value of the household MD role – a role that had traditionally been women’s field of expertise – so thoroughly that it vanished from the public conversation altogether until re-invented as that most invidious of impositions, the ‘mental load’. And now that being household MD has been thoroughly denigrated as worthwhile in its own right, and in the teeth of best practice from the management of organisations in any other context, we are expected to believe that the solution to this dire situation is to bring in a co-MD. It is a recipe for misery.

Of course there is no obvious reason why the role of household MD should by necessity be taken by women. If a woman feels she is being tacitly handed that role by her male partner and wishes to demur then by all means do things the other way round. But a home cannot get by without someone taking the role, at least not without incurring discord and disarray.

And if no-one wants to do it? What if both partners feel the role of household MD is beneath them? Is that where we are today? If so, it is that lack of respect for what is in truth vital work, not the unequal division of domestic management and labour as such, which should be the issue addressed by those who wish to advocate for the interests of women and families.

This article first appeared in The Conservative Woman.