In the wake of Cameron’s unprecedented move this week to close the gender gap in his cabinet, Isabel Hardman at The Daily Telegraph warned us not to get too excited about the prospects of women in politics.
‘Women are on the march – but there’s still one obstacle’, she argues. ‘The cost of childcare is holding back the emergence of true gender equality.’
Hardman believes that the gender gap in politics is, thankfully, not a result of a ‘culture of achievement’ or ‘innate biological differences’. It just comes down to the fact that, due to childcare expenses, ‘women disappear’ when they reach child-bearing age, which is disastrous for their future prospects.
I have no quarrel with Hardman on the fact that childcare in the UK is expensive. But, as a woman who has temporarily ‘disappeared’ from the workforce to raise a family, what I must challenge is her deeper assumption (shared by so many others) that it is a Bad Thing forwomen, and for our society, if we take time out of our careers to care for our children.
Hardman’s perspective is that of the likes of Sheryl Sandberg and the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Index, where the gender gap is measured by equality of achievement. We can’t stop lamenting the plight of women – and our failure as a society – until there are equal numbers of men and women in the top jobs across society; in this case, political jobs. This means that stepping off the political career ladder for family reasons is unthinkable. Indeed, Hardman goes so far as to say that when a woman disappears ‘from the workplace to look after her children’, it is a ‘personal blow.’
Declaring that looking after one’s own children is a ‘personal blow’ seems to me to be wrong in every way. It assumes that a woman’s time away from the workforce is ‘dead’ time. She disappears into a black hole, all her promise wasted. Nothing productive happens during this time, nothing that will give a woman an advantage when she re-enters the work force when her children are older.
And yet, nothing could be further from the truth. I can only speak from my own experience, but I can promise that taking time out to raise my children has made me far more aware, more compassionate, more cooperative, and more knowledgeable on a whole range of subjects than my experiences as a Wall Street banker or academic ever did.
This is not to say that I learned nothing on Wall Street or in academia. But before I had children, my knowledge was limited by my narrow perspective. I was interested in a rather narrow set of questions, although I didn’t realize it at the time.
Once I became a parent, however, my perspective widened, deepened, and changed completely. The stresses of raising an infant, and then a toddler, and then two children, and so forth – with all the energy and irrationality that characterise children – led me to think very hard about the human condition. With my changed perspective, I started to ask different questions, and came to see with neweyes, and with a new passion, how to use the knowledge I had.
I’ve always been interested in politics, but if I had tried to get a political job before I had the experience of being a stay at home mother, I would have been naïve, impractical, and full of easy, self-assured answers to complex problems. There is something about life experience that adds an emotional understanding to ethical and political concepts, which then enhances our intellectual understanding of them. For instance, although I always believed that the family is the fundamental unit of society, I didn’t come to really understand this concept until I made the sacrifice to leave my career for atime to raise my own.
The Hardmans and Sandbergs of this world need to re-think the gender gap agenda. For driving that agenda is the attitude that families are a problem. We can never go forward with this mindset, because there will always be a significant number of women with the potential for high-flying careers who choose instead to put their children first. Instead of lamenting this perceived wastage, we need to value the experience, skills and wisdom that they gain in raising human beings (let alone the fundamental contribution they make to our society, which is not measured by the gender gap warriors).
Indeed, if parenting gives a deeper understanding of the human condition, and if politics is about governing human beings, then surely a woman – or a man – who steps off the career ladder for that purpose has not suffered a ‘personal blow’. On the contrary, she or he has become far more valuable to politics than they would have been otherwise.
Are we serious about filling gaps? Then we should be looking at how to fill the gap of politicians with stay at home parenting experience. For surely this is not only an underrepresented sector of society, but a wise and compassionate group of people who would make an invaluable contribution to political debate. We’re never going to harness their wisdom, however, if we keep telling them that the activity that creates that wisdom is the one thing they cannot do.