Sunday, September 9, 2012

Having It All - The caveat and the myth

It dismays to hear people refer to women "having it all" as a myth we were served up like some kind of trick. I think the failure of this ambition, and by failure I mean the general occurrence of sleep-deprived women working 2 jobs - home and career not knowing how they can go on, is because a rather large caveat was left out of the equation. That caveat being that in order for women to have it all, men have to have it all too.

I like the idea that some day we'll look back on now and think of it as primitive that people chose one job for life or felt forced to choose between being a hands-on parent and having a career. There was a time when people worked six days a week, there were no pensions, no welfare, no workers rights - all these things seen as a threat to the survival of business and national solvency - and we shudder to imagine the quality of life. Many European countries are ahead of the game in this area. In the Netherlands working a 4-day week has become common place - see this interesting article in the New York Times: Working (Part-Time) in the 21st Century. In France the official working week is 35 hours with 6 weeks a year holiday. In Bulgaria maternity and paternity leave is a shared year at 100% salary with further flexible leave for both parents after that. The thinking being that human beings should not be tied to a job or a kitchen sink. It's the next step in civilisation - from the technical age to the flexible age.

Certain Western countries, Britain, Ireland, U.S.A. - I'm looking at you, still sort of rely on women to hold the fabric of family together while "having it all" on their own time. And I think we need a shift in perspective again, to allow both sexes to enjoy choice. I don't have kids but I'm all for a society that puts children first and I think these two issues fit together - what they have in common is that they are currently secondary concerns in an increasingly corporation-first society. The breakdown of family life is a busily explored topic and I think there are a lot of moving factors that contribute to it. One, witnessed in Ireland during the 90s, but is seen elsewhere, is that due to soaring house prices, couples were driven out of cities to buy their first home; likewise, companies were encouraged to locate in remote areas; the end result being people with 4 hour commutes who simply didn't see their kids during the week. Another challenge to family life is the lack of flexibility around working hours and working from home. Despite a lot of talk, this hasn't really taken off the way the Sci-Fi movies envisioned. Another is the changing law on shop opening hours. Sunday used to be a day people spent with family. That included the retailers. My point is: the difficulties that families face, I think, are lifestyle related, and lifestyle is dictated by industry. The problem is not feminism, hedonism on the T.V. or gay people wanting to get married. 

As things stand, people have choice about how to live their lives but the work/life structure does not support choice. People daring to 'have it all' have to give up sleep or any downtime and hope they won't get ill. The flexibility needed to allow people have real choice while protecting family life is seen as a threat to the corporate world. Solutions have been knocked around for years and they seem to fissile out. Whatever happened to the dream of crèches in the workplace? I've worked for 9 multinationals - never seen one baby. Why can't more people be working from home or have tailored hours? The bottom line is: we want women in the workplace and we want them to keep having babies; so we should be helping them to do it. 

A number of studies on flexi-hours have shown businesses gain in savings and employees have greater job satisfaction. Other studies show company savings through a reduction in the need of temporary staff and less sick days being taken. Here are some links: FLEX TIMEFlexi-time Case Studies

I hear a lot of women say they'd like to work but can't get the hours they want - they want to be at home when their kids get home. I wonder why there's no such option as working school hours? As in, less money for a 6 hour day, say, instead of an 8 hour day. In my experience, outside of pressure periods, people have a natural amount of work in them per day. In places where the hours our fixed and long, people take more breaks. In places where the hours are short, people tend to work through lunch or skip afternoon coffee. Obviously this kind of flexibility is not possible everywhere but I think it would save companies money. The scheme already exists, if you think about overtime. 

Here's a controversial article published recently in New Statesman suggesting a 21 hour working week for Britain in conjunction with the Big Society.

And what about working from home? I do it sometimes and my connection is rubbish but telecommunications is probably the fastest advancing area in I.T. Certainly there will be a time when we can video call with work and access everything we need on our servers without the visible delay. This would reduce the overhead cost of having employees sitting at their desks. That's the point of 'hot desking', people sharing an onsite desk which they only need once or twice a week and companies can pare down the office space they need to rent - but it's not really being utitilised to its full potential yet. Why isn't the demand on this greater? Is it only coming from women? Are men missing a trick? 

What's next? The crèche issue. Some countries conduct live studies into childcare allowance and crèche subsidies but still, many women say they don't work because it would cost them more to work than not to! So why don't more companies have crèches? Multinational corporations are one thing, small businesses are another, and I'm not suggesting a small company should have to set up a crèche, but, there are degress by which these things can be implemented. For example, what about company-subsidized local crèches? Here's an article about a law firm in Brisbane who have done just that. The idea of forcing companies to grow in socially responsible ways is not new. They already have to supply employees with pensions, health benefits, holidays. Government incentives steer companies to be environmentally friendly, to get involved in local communities. Aside from all the perks of upper-management, most multinationals supply just for the worker bees: parites, days out, subsidised canteens, subsidised local facilities, gyms, onsite medical staff, relaxation rooms, climbing walls, exotic plants and I still don't see any God damn babies. See, we do set standards but the family domain seems to be the cut-off point. Why is that? Aren't children like the environment - an investment in the future?

I'm not saying anything controversial here. You talk to the front man, the P.R. representative of any major firm and he'll tell you 'Of course we're family oriented: A productive worker is a happy worker and a happy worker has a well-balanced life. Sure, we're a family ourselves'. I once worked for a multinational that had fixed office hours (50 hours a week), 3 weeks holiday a year (illegal, but they found a loophole), no flexi-time or working from home and STILL tried to pull the 'We're family oriented' rhetoric. Well, I'm glad we're all on the same page: A happy worker is one who doesn't cry in the toilets about missing their children.

I've gone outside the boundaries of a programmer who writes poems and fiction here and I am not an expert on any of the above. But, I've always felt uncomfortable with women being told by feminism that they're letting down the side for wanting to stay at home to raise their children and now I'm uncomfortable with this sense of "I told you so" towards women who have chosen to work – there seems to be a revival in judgement of these women as if this great experiment has failed. But it hasn't failed. There's just a missing part of the puzzle. I look forward to a time when working towards a work/life balance for everyone is not separated into feminism, employee-rights, promotion of diversity and a moral agenda. I think we all have to get on board with it. And get men to realise they can have it all too. 


  1. You might find this interesting reading

    1. Yes, will be interesting to see what happens. Thanks Mark

  2. A recent example of adjusting the standard working week to improve quality of life: Gambia is taking Friday off -