There’s been a lot of debate recently around women’s continuing under-representation in key professions and domains of power: parliament, boardrooms, top graduate jobs etc. And the message seems to keep coming that it’s a mixed picture: not just structural issues, but ‘choices’ and attributes and preferences of women themselves. A good old structuralist like myself rather baulks at the ‘failings of women’ account – women lack confidence, step back when they should go forward, fail to negotiate pay and position effectively, are caught in a double bind of working hours and domestic responsibilities – to my mind these factors are symptoms of underlying structural issues, and ingrained attitudes to types of labour, pay and value – rather than being sources of inequality. Nonetheless, one would have to be a fairly mindless sceptic not to concede that the kinds of ‘solutions’ posed by these more individual accounts (networks, mentoring, giving less of a proverbial about what others think and just getting on with it) are not quite effective in the career paths of contemporary professionals – especially those with children. And of course we can’t all occupy positions of power – we don’t all want to – and they can be out of reach for all sorts of structural and personal reasons. It is enough for most of us simply to be able to sustain employment and income whilst having children – but for many it’s not simple at all.
The killer often seems to be the fish finger hour. The fish finger hour is that gap between end of children’s days and beginning of the rest of the evening. It coincides neatly (and infuriatingly) with the end of the conventional working day. The thing about the fish finger hour is that it seems to last forever – both in itself, and through the power of repetition. For many it is hard to afford having someone else take it on while you stay on at work, or even to find childcare that operates the right hours to cover it. For those who are not employed, it can be the gap between a long day with others and a chance to do something else. It is filled with mealtimes, clearing up one day, thinking about the next. The stresses imposed by managing it (or rather, perhaps finding you’re not managing it very well) can be a source of frustration, exhaustion and guilt. Both quality time with children and harmony with partners can be distant in the fish finger hour. How can you escape the daily grind of rushing between end of activity/school/work/childcare and feel good about what you’re doing inside and outside the home? How can the fish finger hour be just a period of time, rather than the barrier between you and what you really want to spend your time doing? Some do seem to get stuck in a permanent fish finger hour: a lack of good-quality part-time and/or flexible work can spell the difference between being able to keep involved in work, and finding yourself full-time at home because it’s all too complicated to organise, for too small a monetary return.
If you do step off the career ladder to cover fish finger hours, and expect to step back on, it can be punished in employment terms. As a senior someone said to me recently ‘it’s not that people think the worse of you, it’s just that you haven’t been there’. To which I replied ‘not there when? Could it be in the crucial years between lower-middle and upper-middle rankings for many people in organisations?’ Quite likely. So the question is how to square the circle – how to be there and not be there? How to take a break ‘strategically’? How to make the system work for you? Have I done it? Only a little at times… How many men are asking themselves any of this? That is a fundamental question.
All this pondering led me to the classic analyst position of turning the problem on its head.
When was the fish finger hour joyful rather than interminable? Sometimes when you try something new and involve the children in making tea – so they pour in something, stir the panful, read out instructions: they have ownership and are delighted by the results (however they taste). I’m sure there’s a management manual there – make people feel helpful and they’ll do anything for you: even behave while you phone someone else entirely….. the power of the transferrable skill. After all, most careers have fish finger hours of their own – e.g. the gap between current position and next progression; the gap between useful discussion and the end of a meeting …
The domestic fish finger hour can also be brilliant when spent with like-minded others – benign neglect or intense involvement of children follows – either can work in team activity. The addition of wine and spicy snacks (for which the management manual has probably been abolished by now) can also help – handled correctly it can be ‘a way’ of doing things: less transferrable with unknown quantities (either people or alcohol)…. Whatever the way, what makes the fish finger hour bearable is throwing some energy and creativity at the problem – even when you don’t feel like it. Sounds all the more like work…..
Issues of affordability of childcare have been much in the news lately, and rightly so. The UK has some of the most expensive childcare in Europe, coupled with long working hours and still not enough flexibility in jobs or in childcare services. The fish finger hour is what we really need to fix: enabling working parents (of either sex) to sustain position in the workplace whilst picking up their children’s needs in the evenings – and not incurring enormous costs for either doing so for a period, or outsourcing the job. The fish finger hour offers some clues as to how to mix employment and home life better. At the end of the day, the fish finger hour should be just that: an hour of necessary and sometimes enjoyable activity, not an eternal barrier to working out how to get to where we want to be.