Picking a fight

I blogged last year about how wretched it was being at home with a baby while everyone I knew from my pre-baby life was at work. It was such a major issue for me at the time. I felt like I was completely excluded from the real world – the world where people Did Things.

I work a 26.5 hour week now in my paid job, oddly precise because it’s 70% full-time equivalent, where full-time is a 7.5 hour day (8 hours once you factor in the lunch break, so a quaint 9 – 5). That is to say, the full-time at my work constitutes hours that many people in the high-flying world would consider part-time.

My first job was a corporate law firm, and I had a few of those stretches of ridiculous hours that some people wear as a badge of honour. To me it was a sign I needed to look for a new job asap. Really really long hours were considered to go with the job, a clear expectation, part and parcel of professionalism. I was prepared to work hard, but just not that hard. I wasn’t prepared for the idea that it would sometimes be necessary to work a 12 hour day on a Saturday.

There are not enough hours in the day. After the little dude goes to bed, there are chores to be done, and then a small pocket of time for me and my husband to hang out together as a couple. Sometimes he works from home in the late evening. Just means more chores for me, and no time together.

One chapter of Lean In is devoted to the importance of (in Sandburg’s words) “making your partner a real partner”. The idea is that women can’t get ahead professionally if they do more than half the home stuff.

At the risk of going out on a limb and picking on a point that doesn’t sound controversial, I think this might be not be the best focus.

My perspective is not moored (mired?) in fond nostalgia for sharply differentiated gender roles. Not at all. It would be great if my husband and I contributed equally to the total necessary unpaid work to keep the family going. It’s just not my job to make him.

The women who divorced in the 70s or 80s, then realised their financial vulnerability: that is my grandmother’s generation (and my grandmother is one of those women). The women who went to uni and started work in the 80s or 90s, assuming that their (male) partners would pick up half the childcare and the chores if they did half the paid work… then had the shocking realisation that no, he still expects to play golf on Sundays and will basically never clean the bathroom: that is my mother’s generation (and my mother is one of those women). My dad had more leisure time. My mum had more time doing chores. It remains a matter of contention.

I think the third generation insight and experience may be to place less emphasis on inequalities within our relationships and more emphasis on how society generally lets down parents, especially mothers but also fathers. Which is another way of saying that we need to focus on the bigger structural issues. I think this is important because, bluntly, my husband and my father and men like them will never do half the childcare and the chores if they are working long hours at the office. It’s not a reasonable ask. Of course, it’s not reasonable to ask women to do this either – but we do it anyway. Because otherwise stuff doesn’t get done. So we get a million think pieces from women like myself and my mother saying “I love him and he is a great partner in many ways, but I still do the lioness’s share of the chores even though I have a paid job as well, what do I do?” The internet has lots of practical tips like “let him do it even if he’s doing it less efficiently” and “have chores that each of you are responsible for and stick to them”. A big part of the picture is that men get more recognition for everything they do. If he holds down a job and does any housework ever and spends any time with his children, he’s an amazing amazing man in the public eye. His partner is a lucky woman. So the only pressure for him to do more comes from within the relationship – but nagging your spouse is a drag.

A split of 30/70 or 40/60 still isn’t 50/50. If I do around half an hour more chores a day, which is a massive understatement, that’s a solid week of additional cleaning every year. If it’s 40/60 split, he’s not just a squeak under half – I’m doing a solid 50% more. It’s basic maths guys!!

However, the time and energy my mum spent trying to get my dad to do more was ultimately pretty futile. If we have a limited amount of time and energy, is this really the best battle to pick? Do we have to pick a battle that makes our partner the adversary? There are so many other battles – like the battles for more paid parental leave, increased early childcare subsidies, shorter working hours, more sick leave, more holiday leave, flexible work schedules, better transport and better housing close to jobs so time isn’t wasted in the commute, more public spaces set up for children, a universal child benefit, and so on.

My husband would run a mile at the suggestion that he stay home full-time. Sandburg says we need half our homes run by men and half our boardrooms run by women. It’s never going to happen. There is an idea that it’s possible for women to have careers like men if they also have a maximally supportive partner who performs the “traditional wifely role”. It’s a very harmful idea to feminism, even though a lot of feminists are the ones repeating it. Think of how impossibly unlikely it is: first, we’d need a whole lot of women who want to have the sort of career that requires a stay at home partner; second, we’d need a whole lot of men who want be a stay at home partner; and third they’d have to find each other in perfect matching pairs rather than falling into dead-weight couples in which both want the same thing.

I wouldn’t want to have a stay at home partner. I wouldn’t want that level of role differentiation. I like to have a handle on the life-admin, I want time to make my house my home, and I’d feel burdened if it was my job alone to earn the money. Similarly, I wouldn’t want to be the stay at home partner. I can’t bear the thought of being financially dependent on someone else on an ongoing basis. I want to use my law degree. I want to have things to talk about with my childless friends. I also wouldn’t want my daily life to be so different from my partner’s life, I’d worry it’d make us drift apart.

Incidentally, Sandburg’s husband isn’t a stay at home spouse enabling her to soar to corporate heights while he does all the stuff in the home. He’s also an extremely successful businessy techy type. In Lean In Sandburg relates a story of one of her kids reaching for the nanny instead of for her. Without dissing nannies or condemning Sandburg, this is the sort of anecdote that would make many women think “whatever Sheryl, you do what you want, but fuck that bullshit, I’m not gonna outsource my parenting to the extent that my kids prefers to spend time with someone I pay. So if that’s what it takes to get to the top, I’m turning round. I’m going to the park with my toddler and we’re going to play peek-a-boo in the tunnel.”

What are we left with? A situation where the top jobs are structured on the assumption that those in them have no other demands on their time. Even when women get to those positions, like Sandburg has, it’s difficult not to buy into this structure. If Sandburg really wanted to change the world, imagine how radical and amazing it would be if Facebook instituted a 30 hour working week? In reality, we end up with a remarkable lack of diversity in the life experiences and expectations of people in high-up positions in law and politics and business with very very few exceptions. By succeeding on the terms laid out by men, women like Sandburg undermine their own ideals and fail to bring a significantly different perspective.

Working the hours I do has given me new insights into workplace efficiency. After some trial and error, I’ve settled on a work schedule of 9 – 4 on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday and 9 – 12.30 on Wednesday and Friday. Leaving aside the childcare dimension, this is proving to be a pretty good structure for my productivity. Because I have Friday afternoons off, I arrive ready to get stuck in on Monday morning. Tuesday and Wednesday morning I’m still going strong. Wednesday afternoon – a time of previously low productivity back in the 9 – 5 days – isn’t part of my working week. So on Thursday I’m refreshed again. Friday morning I’m busy trying to get a whole day’s work done in half a day, and I have none of the go-slow-syndrome that used to affect me at the end of the week. It’s not as though I slacked off before, it’s just that now I don’t suffer those dips in energy at work because I’m not there as much. I’m more efficient, partly because I’m more energetic, and also because I don’t “fill the time” – I always did what needed to be done in the time I had; now I have less time but not proportionately less work, and I get more done per hour. I reckon we could probably all work a shorter week with no negative effects. It’s not clear to me why standard working hours remain so long. There’s no shortage of people to do the jobs, things would still get done, and there’s plenty of money to go around if it was distributed differently.

Long hours squeeze everything else out. In almost every sphere, getting to the top means spending many years internalising the expectation that paid work is the be all and end all. I want to spell this out clearly. The problem is not only that they think long hours are fine and dandy, it’s also that because they work long hours doing one thing on which they are very focused, they don’t have time to do other things. This creates that blinkered perspective, that bubble, that loss of commonality with the rest of us. It’s an enormous problem. We seem to accept that the more important a job is, the more time you should spend on it. What a silly idea. If a job is really important – a CEO of a big company, a head of a major NGO, a very senior lawyer or public servant or academic, the manager of a large hospital, whatever – then it is essential that the person in that job has an understanding of what life is like “on the outside”. Otherwise they’re not going to be able to do their job well. How can a politician understand the concerns of their constituents if they never have time to do the things that normal people do?

Finally, the loss of commonality makes it difficult for those in charge to understand the pressures working parents (and non-parents) face in jobs which have long hours without high status and high pay. Like, the ordinary worker or small business owner who works long hours to pay a big mortgage because that’s the only way to give the kids a warm dry home. Again, PROBLEM. Such a major problem.

How do we fix it?

How do we challenge this norm?

Look, it’s simple. Just work less. Some people can’t, because they really need that job because of the $$$. If you have the privilege of job security and a decent salary, the onus is on you to push back against long hours and/or negotiate different hours, to try and change expectations. Go home earlier. Don’t stockpile annual leave, take a day here and there just to live. Cut it out with the voluntary overtime already. Encourage other people to work less. If you’re senior to someone, tell them to take a long lunch break on a day when things are quiet, tell them to go home early, don’t give them tacit approval for putting in extra hours. Time is all any of us have! And we have a finite supply!

If leaving earlier gives you a bit of spare time, use it to advance collective political action – for example, New Zealand is one of only a handful of developed countries which doesn’t have a maximum working week. Maybe that should change?

Oh and if you have a partner who works long hours and leaves you to do more than your fair share of chores, point out that you’re both putting in overtime 😉

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