27 Jul 2008, Comments Off on Some reflections on gender in my workplace, the Heath Ledger Memorial Dogs Home (and Cattery)

Some reflections on gender in my workplace, the Heath Ledger Memorial Dogs Home (and Cattery)

Author: Helen

This may not be the actual name of my workplace.
Men at W.O.R.K | working on relationships with kids

(Image pinched from the Carman-Ainsworth Community school, Michigan)

So, to follow on from the comment thread on my last post: My totally fictitious playwright was also a writer of hand-wringing op-eds on the impossibility of being a good parent and a good anything else, because if a woman attempts to combine the two she’s doomed to mediocrity in both (aka “having it all”).

My commenters put their collective finger on the framing of this argument: Totally Fictitious Playwright’s argument was perfectly consistent as long as you assume it’s the woman who does all or most of the parenting work, to which I’d add the domestic work as well.

Pav:

None of this will be fixed properly until they stop calling it ‘maternity leave’ and start calling it ‘parental leave’, and a vanguard of courageous male souls brave the mockery from their male workmates and take it.

Armagny:

not being geared towards rewarding malfunctioning humans who spend 60 hours a week plus at work for years on end. Which implicitly sidelines people who take time out, whether for family or other things, or who insist on leaving the office by 5.30, or who won’t (can’t) drop everything on a saturday and work because someone somewhere is having a panic attack about file 763.

I think aspiring to the psychopathic boardroom may be hard for women who want to be decent parents. It may also be hard for males in the same situation. Perhaps it’s the boardrooms that need the adjustment, as I believe you are saying!

I’ve worked at the Heath Ledger Memorial for quite a few years now and one of the reasons for that (besides being an interesting sideways career change) is that it’s very family-friendly. Besides having an option for flexi hours, so that you can vary your comings and goings and make up for any lost time, it has had maternity leave provisions since the early 1980s. Two years ago, I applied for – and got – 48/52. This is hard for some people to get their heads around. You’re only paid for 48 weeks instead of the normal 52 for the year (which is 48 at work plus four annual leave). But the income loss is spread over the whole year. So in effect you have eight weeks’ annual leave and everything is otherwise normal except that your pay packet is smaller.

The people taking advantage of the maternity leave so far have all been women, and there have been more women working part-time to accomodate family; but I’m starting to see a change.

I blogged long ago about a software upgrade on which I was working, to allow customers to make staggered payments on their dogs if they so wished. The company hired a developer on contract to work with us, and he was the compleat Economically Rational Man with the wife at home. When I described my new setup, he was surprised and of course a little contemptuous of such flagrant, namby-pamby nanny-employerism. That was very nice, he remarked, but in the real world, of course, such arrangements would be completely unworkable.

Funny, I thought, I could have sworn that school holidays were part of the real world. They’ve certainly existed as long as I have.

Now the Heath Ledger Memorial Dogs Home is in the process of upgrading its entire system, and has employed a team of upwards of eight contractors. Most of them are (still) male, young-ish, with young children at home (and some more children have appeared since.) And I have to say, the vibe is very different to the Big Swinging Dick-ism of a few years ago.

As a courtesy to co-workers, there’s an understanding that we email our group if we’re coming late or leaving early, and the emails at the Dogs’ Home tell me a story of young dads using the flexibility of their contract work to share family responsibilities. They’ve mentioned illness, school events, minor emergencies and just the usual Creche or school pickup. It’s the same with my (male) boss, who has one school-aged and one kindergarten kid. Oh, and we are a very diverse group and lots of the contractors are from cultures that you’d assume were more traditional in their expectations about parents’ roles. But it’s happening. And there is no valorisation of the “staying back to work after hours” ethos. It happens, and it’ll happen more as the new system goes live – I worked weekends myself (tag-teaming with the partner) last time. But it’s not seen as a big virtue.

It gives me hope.

You see, us women / feminists can be as active as we damn well like, but until the change in gender expectations spreads to the men and the dads and the male bosses who are also dads, we’ll still be in the position of having to shoulder the “second shift” largely by ourselves, and that’s one of the biggest causes of our opting out of some of the demanding and rewarding jobs. Looked at the other way, once a man is equally likely to go part-time for a few years, take time off or work flexible hours, the number of men dropping dead from their eighty-hour week will decrease. Then- and this is depressing but true- having a balanced life will be less identified with femaleness, and its status will increase. In other words, it’ll become visible as part of the “real world”. Yes, I know, but it just will.

I look forward to the day when, in response to initiatives to do with parental leave and the like, the Chamber of Commerce spokesperson-types won’t be able to bully us all with their “well, women just won’t get the jobs any more if we know they’re just going to get pregnant and take maternity leave/go part-time/not give up their lives for the corporation!” In other words, employers won’t be able to assume that a male job interviewee won’t want to do those very things.

Oh, and once I’d got my 48/52 arrangement, my boss thought it was such a good idea, he got one himself, although he’s opted to use it to work a four-day week instead. So, well done these dads. I do hope these are signs of more change to come.

Comments (0)

  • Anodyne says:

    Another 5-Star post from the balcony.

    I always think the best answer to
    “if we hire a woman she’ll only get pregnant”
    is
    And what a pity your mother did too.

  • Helen says:

    Why thank you, Ms Ann. I wonder why you got caught in the spaminator? Fixed now.

  • Rayedish says:

    A good friend of mine was applying for a 9 day fortnight (the hours of 10 working days squeezed into 9) so he can help take care of his baby girl when his partner goes back to work. His immediate boss said ‘my wife worked and I worked and neither of us had 9 day fortnights’ and the boss’ boss said ‘and how did that work out for you? When have you last seen your kids?’. Apparently the answer is five years ago, so Paul got his 9 days – the big boss being a lot more understanding than the immediate boss.
    And that is what it is going to take, more guys staking their claim to their families. As you so rightly have said.

  • Zoe says:

    I’m starting work one day a week in two weeks, and Owy’s shifting to 4 days for a while. He works for a public service department that has extremely civilised leave provisions, including a right to access part time work for two years after the birth of a child for either parent.

  • Ariel says:

    I love the idea of the 48/52 arrangement! Do you use it to cover (or help cover) school holidays? Eminently sensible. And if you’re still being paid for the work you do, I can’t see how it’s bad for the employer.

  • Helen says:

    Ariel, it was particularly because of the school holidays that I did it They are a complete PITA. Workplaces behave as though they don’t exist, and the childcare system has no place for older children to hang out during the day, unlike the US where you have camps. And then you would have to be able to afford them. What tends to happen instead, here, is (1) parents never having time off together because they have to tag-team, and (2) a military-style exercise before every holiday arranging for I’ll have your kid on Monday and then you take my kid every alternate Thursday and the other kid… yada yada. EXHAUSTING. Rather than have Girl- and boychild running a meth lab out of the back yard, I thought I’d buy me some extra leave.

    Although the Third / fourth term hols are always the military exercise, as there’s always a lot of stuff going on with the dalmations in September and October, and the dalmations have always been kind of my speciality.

  • Deborah says:

    That 48 / 52 arrangement sounds good, though I want something like a 44 / 52 set-up – 12 weeks leave a year, to cover school holidays. And I want to work part time – 25 hours per week, or something like that. And yes, that would be to cover the school holidays without having to go the military route.

  • Mindy says:

    I just don’t get paid for the school holidays. Fortunately my whinging has had some effect and hubby now takes a week each holidays so I can work. Not sure how it’s going to work in the Xmas school holidays though, as this is our first year of having to worry about them. Hopefully if it’s quiet over the Xmas break at work, as it usually is, I can load up with DVDs and the portable DVD player and bring boychild to work. We’ve done it before and he likes coming here because we have better bikkies than at home.

  • Mark says:

    Thank you so much for this great post, Helen. I hope you don’t mind, but I’ve ‘borrowed’ – okay, pinched – your image of ‘Men at Work’ for my blog post on the same topic. I’ve given credit to you, so hope this is okay…

    Thanks again.

  • Helen says:

    It’s actually from the Carman-Ainsworth Community school in Michigan – I put that in alt. text but it may not have displayed. Should have put it under the image – will fix it.

  • Guido says:

    This issue won’t be resolved until the dominant paradigm that we still operate in is completely overhauled.

    what we still have are workplaces that work in a hierarchical structure where to be on the top requires being there full time (and in some instances weekends etc.) So people who decide to be part time, or work less than full time are disadvantaged when it comes to promotions or getting interesting work etc.

    I have a couple of examples. When I was working in the public service my boss decided to go part time when she had a child (to be balanced her partner also went part time as well). She was very ambitious and capable (she went to Canada to get her PhD) but her career stopped progressing at that point. Many times I took calls on her behalf and people at the other end groaned because she wasn’t ‘on call’ every day (this was before mobiles were common). The management structure was generally supportive of her taking a day off, and there was no sign of people thinking she wasn’t serious about her work, but she missed the everyday contact between managers when they would talk informally about projects etc. so she missed out on what was going on and became less into ‘the loop’

    The other case is a relative that is a top executive in a major bank. He was taking his kids to school regularly until his new boss decided to have ‘breakfast meetings’. He (and others) objected, but the competitive culture of the workplace basically compelled him to abandon taking his kids to school and go to the meetings. Yes, he could have decided not to go, but guess who would have been out of the loop and perhaps sidestepped for future projects etc.

    Of course these are examples of people in senior positions. It is much easier to be more flexible if lower down the scale. But there is that tradeoff. Is either the kids or reaching the top positions in the hierarchy.

    We still operate in a work environments which was created when males were the main breadwinners and females the main child and home carers. This allowed males to have time to pursue their careers up the hierarchy while the female partner was at home looking after the home and the kids.

    Of course female in the workplace and deserve the same opportunity as males. However the way we work is still stuck in the past, and the culture is as well. So females that want also want to fulfill their mother role are very disadvantaged. It’s all down to productivity, profits etc.

    Can a competitive capitalist system allow workplaces where family and work are really balanced?

  • Seamus says:

    Great post. Your comment “…until the change in gender expectations spreads to the men and the dads and the male bosses who are also dads, we’ll still be in the position of having to shoulder the “second shift” largely by ourselves…” is one that resonates with me.

    I’m around two months away from finishing a year staying at home with our first child, and hopefully should be able to access part-time hours upon my return. I didn’t necessarily have to take the year off, but the main reasons I did were
    1. I believe in my partner’s career and I want her to achieve the professional fulfilment she desires; and
    2. I take the idea that more men need to be doing this sort of thing pretty seriously.

    I just don’t think it’s good enough nowadays for blokes to keep doing the 60-80 hour week thing and then complain about not feeling like they’re being an adequate father.

  • kris says:

    I work in academia and have just gone part-time after my partner returned to work after three years home with the girls. My bosses were very supportive of this arrangement but It has affected my career chances, I think – the industry judges people on productivity and seemingly has no real way of understanding how to factor maternity leave and part-time work into judgements about how ‘well’ people are performing.

    I have noticed that all my male colleagues who are currently in the same stage of family life have dropped back their informal hours and subsequently output, even if they have stayed on the books full-time. But their careers are taking a blow. I’ll be interested to see how all this pans out over the longer term: who catches up, who lags behind, who is forever tarred with the brush of ‘not committed’ (however you might want to interpret that). But I do like that none of the men I know express any resentment of suggest they are somehow ‘sacrificing’ by stepping up to look after their kids, and this makes me feel good about the possibilities for change.

    I think Guido’s comments is pertinent – it’s not just what’s available but how we are judged for taking advantage of what’s available.

  • blue milk says:

    Brilliant post, and terrific comments. I agree with everything you said, because you said it so convincingly but I have one strong reservation which has prevented me from subsituting parental leave for maternity leave more on my own blog and that is.. by and large women do this work, women bear the consequences, we thought it would be more equal but it hasn’t been, and the stats on many things like division of household labour (after reasonable changes, has almost stopped changing for the last 20 years) and actual parenting work (ie if you subtract time when the mother is not present with the father and when the parenting work isn’t ‘playing with the kids’ then the time men spend on parenting hasn’t really shifted a great deal) haven’t changed. So I worry that giving this work gender neutral terms disguises the very serious gender inequities.

  • blue milk says:

    sorry for typos, written while lying down.

  • blue milk says:

    Totally monopolising your comments today.. just wanted to say that I also completely agree with your point about modelling work life balance from the top down before things will really change in workplaces.

  • lauredhel says:

    In my mind, parental leave and maternity leave are two completely different things, and shouldn’t be confused.

    Maternity leave is for getting through late pregnancy, birth, recovery from birth, and establishing breastfeeding. At a minimum this should be 8-10 weeks, preferably 14 (assuming stopping work at 36-38 weeks; women with pregnancy complications or heavy manual/constant standing jobs may need to stop sooner).

    Parental leave is for caring for a young child, which can be done by either bioparent, adoptive parents, or other flavours of co-parents or carers.

  • Helen says:

    I have one strong reservation which has prevented me from subsituting parental leave for maternity leave more on my own blog and that is.. by and large women do this work, women bear the consequences, we thought it would be more equal but it hasn’t been, and the stats on many things like division of household labour (after reasonable changes, has almost stopped changing for the last 20 years) and actual parenting work (ie if you subtract time when the mother is not present with the father and when the parenting work isn’t ‘playing with the kids’ then the time men spend on parenting hasn’t really shifted a great deal) haven’t changed. So I worry that giving this work gender neutral terms disguises the very serious gender inequities.

    My take on it that the slowness of change is partly due to the identification of parental leave, or maternity leave, with women. This does two things. One, it marks out women as workers who are liable to take more time off and more substantial breaks, and men as the more economically rational choice. Two, it doesn’t help with the phenomenon – one that’s not so evident with the dads posting on this thread, but still sadly prevalent in society at large – that men engaged in any activity identified as female will risk a downgrading of status (the “girl cooties” effect”).

    My feeling is that on top of all the other beneficial effects of men spending more time on kids and family, carers will be less idenfiable by the very fact of being female, and that will erode discrimination. Thus, to address Lauredhel above, I might use my parental leave for breastfeeding 6 months plus another 6, but my partner’s employer should not be able to assume that my partner might not apply for a year off himself.

    Once we’re further towards a situation where the carers are “hiding in plain sight”, it’ll be harder for employers to discriminate. That’s my take.

    Also to address Lauredhel’s comment, we still get disastrous situations, don’t we – people hardly ever die or become incapacitated in childbirth, but it still happens; mums die in road accidents, they get terminal illnesses… Mine became terminally ill while I was in primary school, but what if she’d done straight after I or my brother were born? It would be terrible if the other primary parent was refused parental leave because the wording made it clear that it was for Maternity only.

    (My dad had a hard time, even with kids able to dress themselves and make their own way to school. He was old-school himself as far as domestic arrangements went. Hey, this wasn’t supposed to happen! There was supposed to be a wife!!1!)

  • lauredhel says:

    Also to address Lauredhel’s comment, we still get disastrous situations, don’t we – people hardly ever die or become incapacitated in childbirth, but it still happens; mums die in road accidents, they get terminal illnesses… Mine became terminally ill while I was in primary school, but what if she’d done straight after I or my brother were born? It would be terrible if the other primary parent was refused parental leave because the wording made it clear that it was for Maternity only.

    Absolutely, and that is why we need very explicitly non gender specific parental leave entitlements as well as maternity leave. I see parental leave as more analogous to carer’s leave (another thing there should be more of!), and maternity leave is more analogous to “sick” leave (not saying here that birthing mothers are ill; but that they generally should not be forced into paid work around that time for personal, physical reasons).

  • […] And the work will have to be just in term time. Kids do need to be supervised in school holidays, or otherwise, as Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony Helen so fetchingly puts it, they will end up building meth-labs in the back yard. It will probably take a bit of legislation or maybe incentives for employers to make this happen too, so that might be another dead rat that National needs to swallow, given that traditionally, they’re all about “keeping government out of business” and “leaving people free to make their own decisions” and “cutting compliance costs for businesses.” […]

  • […] The follwing comment by Blogger on the Cast Iron Balcony highlights the importance of men and women owning and acting on the work life family interconnectivity problem You see, us women /feminists can be as active as we damn well like, but until the change in gender expectations spreads to the men and the dads and the male bosses who are also dads, we’ll still be in the position of having to shoulder the “second shift” largely by ourselves, and that’s one of the biggest causes of our opting out of some of the demanding and rewarding jobs. Looked at the other way, once a man is equally likely to go part-time for a few years, take time off or work flexible hours, the number of men dropping dead from their eighty-hour week will decrease. Then- and this is depressing but true- having a balanced life will be less identified with femaleness, and its status will increase. In other words, it’ll become visible as part of the “real world”. Yes, I know, but it just will. […]

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.