Yesterday I received an email from my old school, St Mary’s, Cambridge. When I was there it was still under the gentle influence of nuns, but now I get the impression it’s a different place. Every communication contains a slick patter about getting girls into STEM subjects and breaking through the glass ceiling. This email was no different. Asking me to complete a short survey on ‘Women in the Workplace’, it said: ‘We are continuing our exploration into gender inequality . . . Your answers will be crucial in the consideration of gender bias in the workplace and will help our current students to create strategies for overcoming gender barriers.’
I took a look at the survey. It was all depressingly familiar, banging on about ‘developing women leaders’, and ‘leadership development initiatives within your organisation’. The questions didn’t apply to me. I am not a ‘woman in the workplace’, you see. I’m a stay-at-home mum to a pre-schooler, a toddler, and an infant. Never mind that I’m currently working harder than I ever worked in my life. Apparently what I do is not ‘work’ unless it’s in a daycare setting. Same nappies to change, same snotty noses to wipe, same spills to mop up; but in the home it doesn’t count. No one wants the opinion of a woman working in the home.
The email cheerfully announced that ‘St Mary’s has long been committed to preparing our students for the working world as thoroughly as possible, through talks, presentations and work placements’. I don’t remember any such ‘talks’ and ‘placements’ when I was there – the general assumption was that an academic curriculum prepared you for the world of work. There might have been a week’s work experience in our final year, common practice at the time.
Getting ahead in the world of work has not been a problem for my school cohort. I can count amongst my year group successful lawyers, doctors, academics. Some became teachers and nurses. The vast majority of us got degrees. We passed exams at a time when girls started to outperform boys. I can honestly say that in the field I chose – academia – I never came across any discrimination against me on the basis of my gender. If anything, it gave an advantage at a time when institutions were being made aware that they had to appoint more women to top jobs.
The only time my gender ever became an issue was negotiating the tricky ground of how to cultivate older academics with similar research interests who might be in a position to collaborate and advance one’s career. If they were female, no problem. If they were male, and decent, no problem. But if they were male and unprincipled, they would inevitably make a pass. I could take to Twitter and have a #MeToo fest on this subject, but I’m not going to because I never bleated like a poor little victim when it happened. Instead I chalked it up to experience and resolved to have nothing more to do with those particular men. Problem solved. I don’t buy this narrative of victimhood: there is always a choice not to sell out one’s dignity as a woman for career advancement.
That’s what I find so depressing about this survey sent out to me and other alumnae: the assumption of victimhood. A whole generation of young women are being trained to think of themselves as oppressed victims, held back by the patriarchy. The frame of discussion is set around an ‘unequal balance between men and women at senior level’, as the survey puts it, causing young women to expect such a thing and to think of men as the enemy. Not only that, but they’re left with the impression that to redress the balance they have a duty to attain top jobs, regardless of whether that’s feasible. Not all are destined for leadership roles. Some women might not be temperamentally inclined to such roles; some might find circumstances change their focus, such as having a family to care for.
As Jordan Peterson noted in that Channel 4 interview with Cathy Newman, ‘Men and women won’t sort themselves into the same categories if you leave them to do it of their own accord. It’s 20 to 1 female nurses to male, something like that. And approximately the same male engineers to female engineers. That’s a consequence of the free choice of men and women in the societies that have gone farther than any other societies to make gender equality the purpose of the law. Those are ineradicable differences – you can eradicate them with tremendous social pressure, and tyranny, but if you leave men and women to make their own choices you will not get equal outcomes.’
I’ve seen this play out with my school cohort. We were groomed to be high achievers and, by and large, we achieved highly. What no one prepared us for was motherhood. Most of us left it late (for some, too late) to have children so as to be in established careers. No one told us how motherhood would work for the working woman. Many in my year group juggle flexi-time with nanny schedules and nursery drop-offs, some because they’re desperate to get back to the child-free zone of the office, but most because they’re desperate to pay the astronomical mortgages that are now standard in a society where double-earning households are the norm. Either way, we have made choices about our place in the workforce, and these choices are of our own accord. I have chosen to be a full-time mum because I wasn’t prepared for just how much I’d want to look after my own children, and because the economics didn’t stack up: I’d be earning the same, or less, than what I’d be spending on outsourced care, so it makes sense to do it myself.
I now find myself in the surprising position of enjoying stay-at-home motherhood far more than any career or leadership role. I say surprising because, having been indoctrinated into believing that small children were an annoyance to be outsourced at the earliest opportunity so that I could get back to my high-achieving career, I’ve been blindsided by how much I wanted to be my kids’ primary carer.
I thought of this again as news broke that New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, is to have her first child whilst in office. I really hope she isn’t hit with the same realisation. If she is, no doubt this most natural of instincts will be buried deeply under the mantra of gender equality. If, when the baby arrives, she so much as hints that she finds it hard to part with her child, accusations of having betrayed the sisterhood will come swiftly enough.
Will anyone tell today’s young women that, yes, they will be blindsided by motherhood? Will anyone prepare them for being faced by a child experiencing separation anxiety at nursery drop-off? Will anyone tell them that being a stay-at-home mother is a perfectly valid choice and not a betrayal of the sisterhood? Will anyone tell these young women that men are not the enemy, and that it’s OK not to want to do STEM subjects or take on leadership roles?
What about preparing these young women for motherhood? I’d be happy to host a teenager on a placement in my home so she can see what caring for small children involves. She could hang up the laundry whilst she’s about it.
For as long as schools – especially girls’ schools – buy into this rhetoric, young women will be setting themselves up for failure and unhappiness in their work and personal relationships.