Archive | work life balance RSS feed for this section

Frozen in time

5 Jul

Three stories, one about egg freezing, one about biological clocks, and one about sex robots, have walked into the virtual bar of my mind today, and led to the punchline that our attitudes are frozen in time.  How did we get here?

Well, let’s start with the egg freezing.  New research, based on interviews with women in eight fertility clinics, has concluded that women are embarking on ‘social egg freezing’ (i.e. in scenarios where there is no specific medical need for egg freezing) because of the lack of ‘quality’ men, rather than because of their own career ambitions.  This behaviour is explained through the relatively greater numbers of women in higher education, so that feminism carries ‘costs’.  That’s right, women’s success is the reason behind a lack of marriageable men …

Next up, biological clocks. Through research which has investigated men’s fertility over time, it is finally coming to light that male factors matter in couples’ fertility. As men age, their chances of conception in a given month decline, just as is the case for women.  And a number of risks, such as miscarriage, or incidence of certain conditions in children, are associated with paternal age….

Finally, sex robots. Of all the human needs to which AI and robotics could address themselves, it is sex to which a great deal of human ingenuity and financial investment has flowed. So, where’s my cyber beefcake, I hear female readers ask? Surprisingly, you might have to hold off a bit on that one, until they’ve perfected the sex doll for men, as illustrated by the dead-eyed, pouting creations on display here. A voice on the video says robots could ‘fill a void’ in people’s lives – hmmm … Sex robots may be part of a ‘healing’ revolution, meeting needs among those who have difficulty in finding sexual partners, or they may lead to further real-life problems, through a legitimisation of objectification and de-humanising sexual behaviour.  Which do you think is more likely?

And what has all this got to do with being frozen in time?  Each piece is underpinned by a rather rigid set of assumptions about men and women and how they relate to one another, and an absence of commentary around structural factors which reinforce trends. On egg freezing, there’s the idea that women are ending up preserving fertility this way because their relative success intimidates men. Never mind that even when women study the ‘best’ subjects they still end up earning less than men. Back in the old days, well-educated men would marry less educated women, so why are women so fussy? This rather ignores the fact the men could be upping their domestic skills and active fathering, or that flexible working could provide better solutions for working parents; or that economic trends make it increasingly difficult for anyone to afford the kind of home in which childbearing might take place at the ages of optimal fertility.  And so to the biological clock story, where (as I have argued before) our collective discussion has so completely revolved around the ‘trouble with women’, and their time-limited fertile bodies, that we actually forgot to think about male fertility at all. All the responsibility for timing and preparing for parenthood has been placed on women, as they visibly carry children, while men’s role has gone unremarked.  And yet, it does matter, as research has shown. As for sex robots, the stereotyping is all the more predictable.  The market for meeting heterosexual men’s desires is visible all around us, from everyday advertising to pornography. Anything else comes second.

In spite of some real progress, the three stories show that we’re still some way from gender equality in matters of sex and procreation. As long as our technological fixes are guided by gender roles which seem frozen in time, with women as sex robots who one day wake up and take all the responsibility for decisions around childbearing and childrearing, while men consume their choices and remain comparatively untouched by the consequences, we might not get much further.  Maybe it’s time to thaw things out – it could get messy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

For the 100th time …

17 Mar

Hey people, bring out the bunting – this is my 100th blog … Now I know we shouldn’t get too excited, it’s not like it’s Christmas, or even the Queen’s Speech or the budget, but it might just be a call for celebration …

It’s not as if it’s been a mad rush or anything – I first blogged in 2012 – but it’s been something of a revelation.  When I first put blogging finger to keyboard, it was a kind of professional challenge.  After many years of writing for research and policy people, I thought I’d take matters into my own hands, and see what happened if I blogged about the things that interested me for a wider audience.  And I have had a lovely time ….

My background (as regular readers will know) is in stuff to do with gender and policy, and so I joined Mumsnet bloggers network and twitter, and began to publish.  I soon confirmed my suspicion that policy stuff could find readers beyond fellow professionals.  And so, I persisted. If I saw things that inspired me to write, and that I didn’t have an immediate outlet for at work, I’d blog.  And, you know, things just grew from there …. I have a whole load of links, followers and feedback that would never have happened if I hadn’t.

For my 100th blog I thought it would be good to reflect on what has been most popular.  There is, it seems to me, no formula for that: some blogs, you slave over the detail and they never make the mark; others that you write off the cuff work really well.  Sometimes you meet the news agenda to no great avail, others you reflect on something days or weeks later, and it’s a hit.  If I could identify the formula for guaranteed blogging success, I guess I’d be writing this blog from a tropical paradise, not somewhere in England …

When I looked up my Top 5 all-time most popular blogs, I could see elements they had in common.  Most importantly, they were promoted more widely than I could ever achieve alone – if you want an audience, find it through sympathetic hosts, and in online conversations.  Even if there’s a lot of crap out there, I’ve found a twitter community and a supportive platform – I’d like to think that anyone can.

And content-wise, my Top 5 taught me another lesson: for all that I’ve written over the past five years, the apple may not fall far from the tree.  My most popular post is Silicon Valley Chickens and Women’s Eggs – as a wonk married to someone geeky, how technology affects relationships has always been up for discussion ; at number 2, A Cabinet of  Curiosities is all about female representation in politics – a feature of much I’m engaged with professionally and personally; A Post-Truth Christmas Stocking is about the madness of 2016, which we wonks lived through with intensity; number four is Shared Parental Leave, all jacket no bike, including both the wisdom of one of my best friends, and the trouble with the model of shared parental leave we’ve gone for in the UK, which has figured large at work and at home; finally, number 5 is Out of kilt-er, my take on a poorly judged political broadcast in the last Indyref – Wonklifebalance is proudly Celtic ….

And so, I have concluded, your most popular blogs find you – I’ve written many others which looked fit for purpose, even hot to trot. But the very best – decided by readership – all have a wee bit of me inside them. Another lesson may be, that what goes around comes around: my very first blog was about the folly of a new yacht Britannia ….  Thanks everyone for reading, I’ll carry on writing too …. next up blogging 101 😉

 

 

 

 

Dad skills are from Mars ….

9 Oct

Buried in the headlines the other day (but not sufficiently interred to avoid mention in the Today programme’s papers slot) was a story about ‘Dad skills’.  A survey was conducted to find the top 50 skills for the modern father.  Even the king of low expectations could not have masked a little disappointment that the number 1 skill was identified as ‘keeping calm during family arguments’ – because women and children are always just losing their shit – and in the case of mothers, cleaning it up afterwards too, obviously….

As the relentlessly stereotyped list wandered on through barbecuing and DIY via the gift of bonding with kids through sport – which is, of course, a male preserve – my pink brain wondered what a list of mum skills would look like.  Since my kids’ Dad has set up wi-fi* (skill no 14) I was of course compelled to Google it.  And I have to say I wasn’t quite prepared for what I found – if you  Google ‘mum skills’ what you get is a range of lists which are all about how to put mothering stuff into that awkward gap on your CV.  I was so slack-jawed that I was almost late for picking up my children from after-school activities (I thought that was a task, but as ‘taking children to after-school clubs’ is no. 29 on the Dads’ list, I’m upgrading) ….

‘Mum skills’ are about transferring domestic and child-rearing competences to the workplace, so it’s all time management and negotiation skills (after all, how else do you get 3 year olds to cars?), and how you too can get teams to do what you want.  Now, I know as well as any parent that bringing up children is a profound learning experience, and that you can transfer all sorts of things to the workplace, but the idea that ‘Mum skills’ evoke a kind of marketization of relational stuff, while contemporary ‘Dad skills’ are mainly about outdoor activities and technical fixes, should give us all pause for thought.

Since the majority of mothers are employed outside the home, it seems remarkable that ‘Mum skills’ are discussed in terms of long-term career breaks. As it’s 2016, even Dads need to be ‘skilful’ in meeting their children’s emotional needs.  And apart from the odd nod to ‘counselling’ and ‘negotiation’ these needs seem strangely absent from the lists.  It’s enough to make me want to go and lie in a heap on the sofa with my offspring while discussing their day, or chatting about what’s on the telly (just as well Dad configured it- skill no 8 – but then I do no. 15, plastering holes in walls).

The ‘Dad skills’ survey was conducted for the people behind Bob the Builder – slogan ‘Can we fix it?’ And the answer is, ‘Yes, we can’. How? With less gender stereotyping of tasks/skills, decent shared parental leave, and listening to children, no matter what our work-life balance happens to be.  Meanwhile I’ll carry on blogging while doing other things – after all, ‘multi-tasking’ is pretty high on all those ‘Mum skills’ lists …

 

*he’s a geek, it makes sense

 

An Egalitarian’s prayer for Shared Parental Leave

1 Dec

Our fathers

Who exist not only in the workplace

Hallowed be thy multiple roles

Your children come

And your work be done

At home, as well as in the office.

Give us – some day – a bigger proportion of your daily bread to cover paternity and parental leave

Meanwhile let’s find ways of coping with the debts you will run up

As we have found ways of coping with mothers’ debts up to now

And lead us not into the temptation of thinking no men want this,

But deliver us from gender inequality

For thine are the children too:

The daily mundanity as well as the fun and the glory

For ever and ever

All men (well, at least more than the government estimate of 2-8% take-up)

Is flexible working the new premarital sex?

15 Nov

Flexible working – is everyone at it but just not talking about it? A new survey from the USA suggests that men as well as women are taking up opportunities to work more flexibly and so accommodate family life. However, a key finding is that informal arrangements work best for men. Only 29% have a formal arrangement that fixes weekly working patterns. Rather than drawing up an explicit contract with their employers, many men get by on being ‘regularly irregular’ with a nod and a wink from a sympathetic boss. So they may not make announcements about their working hours, just go early – perhaps leaving their coat on the back of the chair, lest anyone should suspect them of skiving. Or they phone in to work from home, or make up time in the evenings.

In some ways this is progress – the more involved father finding a way to make balance work when they have a spouse who is probably working too. But women who work flexibly have tended to do it by the book – to set clear ground rules on accepting a job, or to make a formal request to have flexible hours considered. After all, where kids are concerned the buck is seen to stop with her. Indeed, it’s recently been reported here in the UK, that women who make requests for flexible working are more likely to have their request granted than men.

Why is there this difference in the strategies of men and women, and why does it remind me of premarital sex? It’s because of the gendered assumptions about suitable behaviour that underlie both. The informal arrangements at work maintain a man’s reputation as a serious careerist, just as leaving before morning might maintain a nice girl’s social standing when respectable women could not be seen publicly to be engaging in sex before marriage. As long as flexibly working men do nothing so reckless as to go part-time, their place in the rat race is safe: flexibility may be invisible in order for men to have it in senior roles. Similarly, back in the day, as long as separate sleeping arrangements were seen to be made, and no pregnancy occurred, an unmarried woman could have sex below the radar with her reputation intact.

What is wrong with this picture? It’s the idea that flexibly working men and sexually active women each have had to erect a façade of respectability in order to do what they want to do. And of course it’s no coincidence that the system turns a blind eye to men’s behaviour while making women jump through hoops. Whilst everyone tacitly accepted men’s sexual behaviour, women’s behaviour was heavily regulated; now men can operate a ‘blind eye’ solution to work flexibility whilst women have had to campaign for formal regulations to enable flexible working and prevent exploitation – such as unequal treatment on the basis of job description and/or hours. The acceptability of premarital sex was aided by the innovation of reliable contraception, and the acceptability of flexible working has been aided by the advent of personal computing, e-mail and the internet. You no longer need to be at work to do many kinds of work; you can now have sex and avoid pregnancy.

But as with sexual mores, so in the workplace: the gender behaving ‘out-of-character’ – the sexually active independent woman, the family-oriented career man – has to find arrangements to keep up appearances. Do what you have to, but don’t shout about it. Because if you did, let’s face it, everything would have to change …. And where would that lead?

 

%d bloggers like this: