The work-life fallacy

 In a recent letter to Personnel Today (26 April), I was soundly upbraided for misreading the opposite sex.

“Instead of talking about women’s rights to work, why don’t we look at why society seems to think the home is not as important as the workplace?” asked Marjory Clark, training manager at Ashley School of Hospitality. “Why do we say women cannot be fulfilled at home? Is home such a dirty word?”

As little as five years ago, the natural response to such questions would have been to say that they represented backward-looking stereotyping in its most virulent form. Just try substituting the word ‘men’ for ‘women’, and then repeat the questions to yourself. A well-polished set of back-to-the-scullery prejudices seem to be at work.

But something has changed, and today, Ms Clark demands a more thoughtful audience. What has changed, I think, is that we are now post work-life balance, and from experience, we know that work-life balance as a principle failed women, and particularly mothers, far more savagely than it failed men.

The illusion that work and home can be reconciled without major sacrifices has mostly claimed female victims. ‘Career woman’ feels guilty that she’s not the mum her mother was and is neglectful of the domestic sphere, while ‘mum’ knows that dropping a day or two from work to allay the guilt means ‘career woman’ must forget the career for a while – if not for good. “I feel like a social experiment that will be abandoned in a generation or two,” another reader told me in response to the same article. Home and hearth thus appear to be twinkling a bit more brightly in some female hearts.

The prim little term ‘work-life balance’ was invented in the early 1990s to try to remove the gender dimension from consideration of the issues of working time, widening labour market participation, and its impact on family life. Its forerunner, ‘family-friendly working’, was perceived as ghettoising and effeminate. Nice try, but it was never going to be so simple.

The concept of work-life balance salutes the disadvantage of women – not just because the workplace won’t adapt to accommodate flexible work patterns, but also because the home is proving highly resistant to reform as well. In some ways, the division of labour at home remains a more intractable problem. As a result, some women feel they have to fight on multiple fronts, and, as Napoleon discovered, that opens oneself up to the possibility of multiple defeat.

Women’s options are as follows: they can be ‘I-don’t-know-how-she-does-it superwoman’ – juggling, striving, tough, anxious. They can go part-time and accept that their advancement will be limited if they do. Or they can make the either/or choice – work or home. Rightly or wrongly, it is hard to imagine these options becoming male choices, but I suppose we will recognise cultural progress when they do.

Disappointment with the concept of work-life balance is a theme that emerges strongly from a new collection of studies into how UK employees manage the trade-off between working and caring.*

 The dual-income family is one of the major social innovations of the late 20th century (although in pre-modern societies, women conventionally undertook paid work). In 1980, the employment rate of women with pre-school children was 28%; by 1999, the figure stood at 52%. In other words, the labour market participation of women with young children is not far short of having doubled in 20 years.

However, as soon as a child is born, traditional gender roles begin reasserting themselves. Flexible working provides a way for mothers to keep earning, but several studies dispute the idea that part-time work in its current form is a useful stepping stone. Work part-time, or divide your attention too much, and your legitimacy as a member of an organisation is drastically undermined – contributing to the gender pay gap, pension shortfalls, and much bitterness.

“Mothers work shorter hours, for lower pay in more feminised environments than other women,” one study finds. ‘Aspirational’ flexibility remains a pressing need.

Meanwhile, men want greater involvement in family life – yet the 24/7 economy has turned fathers with young children into the hardest working group of all. They must work long hours “either to make ends meet in low-paid work, or to demonstrate ‘commitment’ in career positions,” writes professor Diane Houston, editor of Work-life Balance in the 21st Century.

Yet it is the studies that pitch headlong into some sensitive territory that linger in the memory. One study, which examined the attitudes of first-time mothers, reported high levels of satisfaction among women who gave up work to care for their child. By contrast, “women who were combining paid work with motherhood expressed concerns about the impact this was having on their child”.

Marjory Clark may have a point. There is no reason why women – and I would add men – cannot be fulfilled in the home. As she implies, the media, the Department for Trade and Industry, the European Commission and the labour market intelligentsia, are all guilty of an unspoken, but highly dogmatic, insistence on salvation through work.

Without thinking, we believe that work is the primary self-actualising, self-expressive activity, eclipsing all other possible choices in intrinsic worth. It’s good to be reminded just how loopy this appears to some people. And to remember that building and sustaining a home, a role traditionally undertaken by women, is indeed serious work.

* Work-life Balance in the 21st Century, edited by Diane M Houston, Economic and Social Research Council Future of Work Series, Palgrave MacMillan, 2005


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