Memo to Annabel: It ain’t gonna happen

housewifeAnnabel Crabb wants us to get real about women in politics. The current carry-on is “all very interesting and thought-provoking and no doubt useful to a certain degree” but there’s an elephant in the room:

[F]or chicks, you can choose politics or you can choose having children. The odds are against you pulling them both off at the same time and if you do, life will be very, very hard. This has always been true. It is still true. And it will keep being true until society stops assuming that a man who leaves his children for 18 weeks a year is normal, but that a woman who does the same thing is an evil hell-crone.

I’m not entirely sure what a ‘hell-crone’ is, but when I did the research for this column, if I remember correctly there was basically nowhere where women’s lib, which has achieved such stupendous results in so many areas, had achieved much around the house.

In virtually all developed world cultures, while women’s labour market performance has soared, women still do the lionesses share of domestic work. I think the pattern or work continues to stick closely to gender stereotypes with women doing the ‘inside’ chores – cooking, cleaning and caring and men the ‘outside’ ones – handyman work, mowing and paying the bills (this is usually done inside, but there you go, neat categories will only take you so far before they leave you with nothing but a silly chagrin on your face – but I digress).

I proposed a little model of how this could have happened in my article though of course it’s speculative:

 

Oddly existing research virtually ignores emerging neuro-psychological research that’s showing just how much differing gender behaviour might reflect different cognitive and neurological development between the sexes.

 

Boys and girls start with hard-wired cognitive biases. Habits then form from repeated individual choices. And no-one would deny that those choices themselves occur within a culture which thinks differently about men and women.

Given that, it’s not so surprising that the sexes often have strong (somewhat) complementary preferences. On becoming parents most women are willing primary providers of primary care and milk. That gives them enduring skill advantages. So too men often become the handymen without complaint.

 

There’s usually housework that neither partner fancies. Often men can ‘hold out’ longer while that question of who’ll tidy the lounge just hangs in the air! But though most prefer tidiness, caring relatively less about untidiness is a preference too.

 

Of course those preferences reflect (amongst other things) social expectations. But the important question is how well gender roles suit men and women whether they’re experienced as oppressive or as something which enhances and deepens valuable lived experience.

 

And it doesn’t seem that women experience the gender housework gap as oppressively imposed by outside expectations. When asked, only one in seven Australian women say they’re unsatisfied. A paltry three percent are very unsatisfied, though nearly a third think their men could do more.

 

Meanwhile back in the academy, feminists speak of women’s relative satisfaction in the same way that Marxists used to bemoan the ‘false consciousness’ of proletarians who weren’t revolutionaries.

 

No doubt there are horror stories amongst the unsatisfied women. And some of us men should probably do more at home. But it doesn’t look like a huge problem.

 

But I would say that wouldn’t I?

Personally I’d like to see more attention paid to the way in which those who look after children – whatever their gender – those who take a good chunk of time out of the workforce do massively worse when they return. Is this a market failure? That I don’t know. On the one hand it seems hard to believe that putting a lot of time into being a parent would degrade one’s human capital. After all an awful lot of the increased earning that goes on as people age into their forties and fifties reflects the non-cognitive skills involved in management – which one would have thought parenting would enhance. And if one devoted organisational and other resources to the problem – both during the carer period and perhaps for some period on ‘reintegration’ into the career track – you could hope that the career and carer pathways might happily coincide.

I know quite a few women whose confidence falls once they’ve been full time caring for a while – who come to wonder if their thinking skills really have declined. I haven’t noticed that they’re right, but that’s how they feel. So there’s a confidence issue right there. But there’s something else – an heretical thought. Parenting is more absorbing (though it can be more tedious). It is simply more important and ultimately more fulfilling than a great deal of paid employment. I suspect that part of the attributes of a highly productive senior member of a workforce is a conviction that turning out those widgets, getting their cost down from $2 per unit to $1.95 per unit and their revenue from $2.50 per unit to $2.55 per unit is just about one of the most important things that there is in life. And after you’ve been serious about parenting for a while, and when you’re in your mid 40s, perhaps you find it difficult to convince yourself that that is the case.

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Dave
Dave
8 years ago

I like your musings on this stuff. Unlike others, I also liked your musings on righteous masculine anger (or similar).

One data point in support of your hypothesis. My father did both. One traditional role, and one stay at home dad. He would recommend the stay at home way every time.

I guess that’s datum then.

Dave
Dave
8 years ago
Reply to  Dave

Of course, he would also preface advice with the catchall to do whatever is the best option as a family.

So I am not a stay at home dad…

lulu
lulu
8 years ago

So maybe we need more women who feel the gender gap more oppressively than others. Or understand why there aren’t more women like this? Personally – I don’t do anywhere near the lioness share of domestic duties, i have never cleaned the dunny in my 20 year relationship (I am women he cleans it). I might cook twice a week, and i don’t do the weekly grocery shopping. I put all laundry away (but he washes, hangs and brings in).. I also returned to full time work (as I was more financially capable) once kid 2 was 11 months old. He stayed home full time with kids, and studied to improve his skills (re training as a 40 year old teacher). He did struggle to return to the workforce, after spending so much time being ignored by mothers groups, and general society as an oddity (often questioned if he was running a business at home, as if managing two boys wasn’t enough?). But maybe this is easier if you are returning to a familiar environment/ previous career?

I also much prefer to mow the lawns than clean the kitchen. But then i was raised rebelling against the gender stereo type of post war migrant parents. What i hope this means is our two sons will understand that there are no such things as gender roles – and that either parent is capable of looking after family, earning an income and doing domestic tasks. We now share the variety of roles we all play (except cleaning the dunny which with 3 males in the house i am never going to do!) Maybe its society that doesn’t value parenting as a valid thing?

Sancho
Sancho
8 years ago

The lion’s share is all of, not most of.

That bit of pedantry is all I have to add.

Richard Castles
Richard Castles
8 years ago

Either way, shouldn’t it be “lioness’s”? Pedantry is hard-wired in my brain as a means of avoiding engaging with the thought-provoking substance of the article. Different from Abbott’s infamous quote, in that you are talking choice and preferences rather than capability.

Z.
Z.
8 years ago

I think you’re onto something there with the perspective that parenting provides on the importance of $0.05 profit per widget. But I wonder the relevance of this insight to Annabel’s post. Being an elected member engaged in heady affairs of state should provide greater scope, satisfaction and pull factor than the widget business, no?

Or perhaps at the Ministerial level that’s the case. But the indeterminate detention of careerbuilding years as as an opposition backbench MP to get there, are a bridge too far for many people (some men, more women) with both a) young children and b) their heads screwed on right.